Arch Enemies and Junkyard Dogs: What to know about Auburn's NCAA Tournament draw
Bruce Pearl's Tigers got, on paper, a favorable draw on Selection Sunday — but one that opens against a 15 seed with some *interesting* aspects.
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PG Wendell Green Jr. (Jacob Taylor/Auburn Athletics)
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee might have a good sense of humor. But it might have a better sense of history.
When Auburn’s spot in the Field of 68 was revealed on Sunday evening — still a No. 2 seed and still in Greenville, in spite of a brief moment of panic among fans when Duke was revealed as a No. 2 at the same site — it was paired up with No. 15 seed Jacksonville State, an in-state opponent.
(That brief moment of panic extended to members of the program, too. Zep Jasper, a South Carolina native, said his “stomach was folding up” when it looked like he wouldn’t be able to play in his first NCAA Tournament close to home. But he was relieved to be playing two hours and 18 minutes from his hometown and a little less than four hours from his new home on the Plains.)
Auburn playing Jacksonville State in Greenville during the early session Friday is about more than just geography. Jacksonville State’s head coach is Ray Harper, who had a fierce head-to-head rivalry at the Division II level with Bruce Pearl.
In 1994, Pearl went to the national championship with Southern Indiana. A year later, the Screaming Eagles won it all. Pearl went to the Sweet 16 in 1996, then Harper arrived at conference rival Kentucky Wesleyan.
Southern Indiana won the Great Lakes Valley Conference in 1997 before a Sweet 16 exit. In 1998, Kentucky Wesleyan knocked Southern Indiana out in the Sweet 16 and ran all the way to the national title game. Harper’s KWU did that again in 1999, this time winning it all. In 2000, KWU knocked out USI in the Sweet 16 again and made it back to the final. After the 2001 tournament — another national title for KWU — Pearl left for his first Division I title at Milwaukee.
“Obviously, I don't know much about Jacksonville State, but I know their coach very well,” Pearl said Sunday. “When I was the head coach at Southern Indiana, he was the head coach at Kentucky Wesleyan, and I think he got the best of me. I've always given Ray credit for that. We were big rivals, recruiting rivals — and they were our arch-enemy, not just our rival. It was very akin to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry, and it was very, very heated at times.
“So I would venture to say there's probably not a team in the country that Jacksonville State would rather play than Bruce Pearl and Auburn, I'm just telling you.”