In a season of adversity, Auburn finally catches a break in Birmingham
The Tigers are staying *very* close to home for the NCAA Tournament — and their first-round draw could've been a lot worse.
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HC Bruce Pearl (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
With a KenPom luck rating that ranks No. 259 in Division I, it’s safe to say that Auburn basketball hasn’t caught a lot of breaks recently.
Starting with the preseason knee injury to highly touted freshman guard Chance Westry and continuing with a barrage of close losses, frustrations with officiating and brutal stretches of the schedule, Bruce Pearl has repeatedly talked about how much these Tigers have been through this season.
“I do think that there’s been some level of fatigue, particularly as it related to the tough places that we went to on the road and the competitive games,” Pearl said Sunday evening. “These guys continued to get up off the mat and tried to win.”
That fatigue has really multiplied in Auburn’s road trips, which started back in the summer with a foreign trip to Israel. Then the Tigers went on another international trip during Thanksgiving week — playing two games in Mexico — before a West Coast swing to USC and Washington.
Auburn also played its SEC/Big 12 Challenge game away from home this season, something it didn’t do a year earlier. On top of that, the Tigers made trips to two of the most distant locations in the SEC with Texas A&M and Kentucky rotating back on the schedule as road games.
“This team, including our summer trip to Israel, logged 31,000 miles of travel,” Pearl said. “Last year's team, for example, only logged 11,000 miles of travel. I think it's been a long year from that standpoint.”
But in a season without many fortunate breaks, Auburn got a rather large one from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee on Sunday.
Instead of being sent off to Sacramento, Denver or Albany, Auburn is staying in-state, making the quick journey up Highway 280 — or I-85 to I-65, if you prefer — to Birmingham for the first weekend of March Madness. The No. 9 seed Tigers will face the No. 8 seed Iowa Hawkeyes at 5:50 p.m. CT on Thursday at Legacy Arena.
“We knew that we were going to be in the 8, 9 or 10 game,” Pearl said. “That’s where we thought we were going to be. That's what the analytics said. We knew that Birmingham was an 8-9 (location), because we also knew Alabama would be there as the 1.
“But because of the pods and the NCAA trying to keep teams more regional, we had a chance to maybe be there.”
With the top two seeds in the tournament, Alabama and Houston, being closer to Birmingham than any other first weekend site, Auburn had an opportunity in an 8/9 game to get paired up with the Cougars.
The first SEC champion under Pearl had to go to San Diego for the first round. The Final Four team started in Salt Lake City. Even last year’s No. 2 seed had to travel a couple of states away for the first weekend. But this one is staying in Alabama.
And even though Auburn lost nine out of its last 13 games, all that travel the Tigers did during the season played a part in them snatching a 9 seed instead of a double-digit one.
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