By Wil Crews
The Auburn Tigers men’s basketball team enters the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed and will face in-state foe and No. 15 seed Jacksonville State University (21-10) on Friday.
Despite the program’s highest-ever postseason tournament seeding, the Tigers enter the “Madness” having won just five out of their last nine games after a stellar 22-1 start to the year. With loses to non-tournament teams like Texas A&M and Florida sandwiched in the recent run of poor performances, concerns for Auburn’s tournament longevity have been steadily rising.
But the Tigers are dancing, and that is what really matters. They have a fair, one-in-68 chance to be crowned champions just like every other team. The journey to another potential Final Four run begins against the Gamecocks at 11:40 a.m. on Friday.
Jacksonville State enters the NCAA Tournament as Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season champions, having lost in the semifinals of the ASUN conference tournament under sixth-year head coach Ray Harper. The Gamecocks are only in “The Big Dance” due to a technicality with Atlantic Sun Conference Champion, Bellarmine, which was ineligible for the tournament because the program is in year two of a four-year transition to Division-I basketball. Despite the early exit in the conference tournament, the Gamecock’s are winners of five out of their last six entering the NCAA Tournament. This is Jacksonville State’s second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance under Harper, with the first coming in 2017 where the Gamecocks were a 15 seed and bounced in the first round with a 78-53 loss to Louisville.
Statistically, Jacksonville State is one of the nation’s leading three-point shooting teams, ranking fifth overall at 38.8% from deep. The Gamecocks are led by the three-headed attack of guards Darian Adams, Demaree King and Jalen Gibbs. King and Gibbs both pose a constant threat to get hot, shooting better 46.2% and 40.1% from three-point territory this season. The Tigers rank 59th nationally in three-point defense, so the Gamecocks could give the Tigers some trouble in this aspect given Auburn’s limited guard depth and its own struggles shooting from behind the arc.
On the flip side of things, defensively, Jacksonville State attempts to make opponents beat it with shots from the outside, too. Opponents made the three at a 33.1% mark against the Gamecocks this season; contrarily, opponents shot 47.1% on two-point attempts.
Regarding two-point shot, where Auburn has the clear advantage in this matchup is in the front court. Jacksonville State’s biggest contributor from a “big man” perspective comes from junior forward Kayne Henry, the only Gamecock player over 6-foot-3-inches to average more than 20 minutes per game this season. The likes of Henry and 6-foot-9-inch senior Brandon Huffman, who averaged 8.9 points and just over one block per game, will have their hands full with Jabari Smith, Walker Kessler and company battling down low.
Jacksonville State finished the season ranked as the 146th best team according to KenPom, with its strength of schedule and strength of record ranking 291st and 138th nationally. The Gamecock’s best performances of the season came in their wins against Wichita State and Liberty. They lost both of their Quadrant 1 games by single digits on the road against VCU and their only shared opponent with the Tigers, Alabama.
Another aspect that brings intrigue to this matchup is the history behind Auburn coach Bruce Pearl and Harper. The two are familiar foes from Pearl’s time at Southern Indiana and Harper at Kentucky Wesleyan. To the concern of some Auburn faithful, Harper’s teams often had the advantage in the once competitive rivalry — going 13-3 against Pearl between 1996-2001.
But that was then and this is now. The Tigers clearly have the superior roster from top to bottom, and some of Auburn’s biggest concerns heading into the tournament — bench play and experience — should not be much of a factor in the round one matchup against the Gamecocks.
JSU is one of the four teams from the state of Alabama which made the NCAA Tournament, joining the No. 2 seed Tigers, the No. 6 seed Tide and the No. 12 seed UAB, coached by long-time Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy.
If the Tigers manage to move past the Gamecocks, they will have a round of 32 matchup against the winner of No. 7 USC and No. 10 Miami.