Auburn Stays Close to Home for NCAA Tournament
BY WIL CREWS
Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers will be playing close to home through at least the first two rounds of the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
The No. 9 seed Tigers (20-12) are in the Midwest region of The Big Dance and drew Birmingham as the location for its first-round matchup against the No. 8-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes (19-13). Auburn has a prospective second-round matchup in the Iron City as well, against No. 1-seeded Houston.
Judging off recent history, this geographical stroke of luck could provide a huge boost for the Tigers. Auburn was a completely different team at home in 2023, finishing the regular season 14-2 at Neville Arena; contrarily, the Tigers struggled on the road, finishing 4-8 overall.
Of course, the Tigers will need to play their best and rely on more than the fan advantage to advance in arguably the toughest competition across all sports. Against the Hawkeyes, however, Auburn has some clear advantages.
Primarily, the Tigers have a grit and quality on the defensive end of the ball that is unmatched by the Hawkeyes. Auburn’s opponents this season have averaged 67.1 points per game and shot just 28.8% from three-point range. On the other hand, Iowa’s opponents have averaged 74.4 points with 36.6% three-point shooting per game. Meeting the defensive standards reflected by these metrics will be crucial for Auburn’s success if it hopes to outlast the Hawkeyes — one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country.
While Auburn holds a clear advantage on the defensive side of its first-round matchup, the Hawkeyes have a big advantage on offense. Iowa relies heavily on five players who average double-digit point totals to maintain the nation’s third most efficient offense. Arguably one of the best players in the country, Junior Kris Murray Jr. leads the way for Iowa, averaging 20.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Furthermore, the Hawkeyes rank No. 85 nationally in three-pointers made per game, and No. 163 in three-point percentage. While those aren’t world-beating numbers, they are clearly superior to Auburn, which ranks No. 272 in three-pointers made and No. 314 (out of 363) in three-point percentage. Taking and hitting quality three-point looks — and limiting Iowa from doing just that — will play a key role in determining Auburn’s success in the first round (and beyond).
The last crucial statistic that could sway the first-round game in the favor of either team will be rebounding. Both teams are poor in this respect, with Auburn ranking No. 143 nationally in team rebounding, and Iowa ranking No. 121. Second-chance opportunities will be crucial if Auburn hopes to overcome its shooting woes and defeat the Hawkeyes.
If —and that is a big if — the Tigers play well and outlast Iowa in the first round, they face a gargantuan task to advance further in the tournament. That task comes in the form of No. 1 seed Houston (30-3). Unfortunately for Auburn, the Cougars do what it does best, better. Houston is ranked No. 2 nationally in opponents’ points per game (allowing just 56.3), and No. 1 in defensive efficiency. In addition, Houston has outperformed Auburn in nearly all offensive metrics that matter in 2023. It’s a classic David versus Goliath matchup, in all honesty. But again, Auburn should have a clear home advantage in terms of atmosphere that could help propel the Tigers above their season standards.
Coming off a historic 2021-22 campaign that featured the program achieving its first ever No. 1 AP ranking and sending two players to the NBA via the first round of its draft, Auburn’s 2023 regular season could rightly be classified as a disappointment. The first-round exit in the SEC postseason tournament last week only bolstered that notion. But the Tigers are still dancing. And Auburn has been in — and lost — an innumerable amount of close games this season.
Those experiences have hopefully taught this team something about itself and how to finish games. Pearl will put his stamp on each game with coaching adjustments, and then it’s all left to the players. No matter how low the Tigers and their fanbase have been this year, the team earned its opportunity in The Big Dance. That’s the minimum of what the program sets out to achieve. But ever since the program made its way to the Final Four in 2019, the NCAA Tournament has left a nasty taste in the mouths of the Tigers and their fans. Birmingham could be the place where it all starts to turn around — or where the Tigers’ season comes to a close and the eyes turn to 2024. Whatever the result, at least the bus ride home will be a short one.