This year, Auburn has experience in March. But how much will it matter?
Auburn was one of the youngest teams in the NCAAT last year. That's not the case now, and the Tigers can tell a difference.
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BIRMINGHAM — Jaylin Williams hates flying.
He’s brought that up several times this season, one that has featured plenty of plane trips for the Tigers — the summer Israel tour, the West Coast swing to USC and Washington, a midseason game at West Virginia and quite a number of SEC contests.
So when the basketball gods and/or the NCAA Selection Committee put Auburn in Birmingham for the first weekend of the tournament, Williams was arguably the happiest man on the Plains.
“I didn’t want to fly, like, five hours somewhere,” Williams said Wednesday. “It was great to just be close to Auburn. Just a little drive after practice. Could even get your schoolwork done. We didn’t have to leave early.”
The Tigers walked off the practice floor and right onto a bus early Tuesday evening. The 113-mile trip is the shortest one they’ve made all season, as the visit to rival Alabama is more than 40 miles longer.
And even the bus ride up Highway 280 — which can be notorious for slowdowns and speed traps in certain towns — was quicker than usual.
“I will tell you, driving to Birmingham on 280 was never so much fun as with a police escort,” Bruce Pearl said. “I am telling you. I mean, it was awesome. We went through every single red light and I tell you, we got here in about an hour and a half. Everybody knows what a ride that can be.”
K.D. Johnson said he wasn’t as excited about playing in Birmingham as Williams, but that’s because he wanted to go somewhere he’s never been before. That thought changed, though, when the maniacal shooting guard realized how many Auburn fans could make the trip.
“I want them here,” Johnson said with a grin.
If Johnson isn’t the Auburn player who feeds off the crowd the most, it’s definitely Dylan Cardwell. And when Cardwell saw Auburn’s name flash up above “Birmingham” during the selection show on Sunday, he saw an advantage that most didn’t.
“That’s what I was most excited about: Not being somewhere like Sacramento, somewhere I haven’t been before,” Cardwell said. “You’d want to go explore and see the city. In Birmingham, like, we live right down the street. We can come in here any time. It’s not like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
“We can all lock in to the job we have ahead.”