Auburn is going back to the NCAA Tournament. For the sixth time since 2000, and the fourth time in the last five tournaments, Auburn will be in March Madness. This is Auburn’s fourth appearance in the dance under Bruce Pearl, which puts him second all-time among Auburn coaches, trailing only Sonny Smith, who is responsible for six of Auburn’s 12 total appearances.
“No matter how old you get or how long you've been doing it, it's still very special to see your name and hear your name called,” Pearl said. “I just cannot take making this tournament for granted. I'm very proud of the team for making it and putting ourselves in this position.”
Auburn has never lost a first-round game under Pearl, but as a No. 9 seed, this will be the first time that the Tigers are the lower seed. They may also have a home-field advantage, with the regional matchups taking place in Birmingham, just over two hours from the Plains.
“To be in Birmingham, for our fans and for our students, it's just awesome,” Pearl said. “Hopefully, we'll get great support and see if we can have a shining moment or two.”
There are only three teams in the NCAA Tournament that are in the top 10 of offensive efficiency and outside of the top 100 in defensive efficiency: Baylor, Missouri and Iowa.
Auburn has already faced Missouri, dismantling them at Neville Arena 89-56.
The Tigers of the SEC East and West are on opposite ends of the bracket, and it is unlikely that the two teams will meet again in March, but Auburn will face another team in that group, the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes are coming off of a one-and-done performance of their own in the Big Ten Tournament, but the team has shown flashes throughout the season, including two wins over Indiana in which Iowa scored over 90 points.
The combination of a dangerous offense, which scores over 80 points per game, and lackluster defense that allows teams to score 74.4 points per game while shooting 47% from the field, could be suited for an Auburn team that prides itself on defense and has an offense that is still trying to find an identity.
“We’ll be focusing a lot on how to guard them. We try to defend a little bit like how Iowa State defends,” Pearl said. “Iowa got them pretty good earlier in the season so we’re looking at the things they did well against Iowa State.”
The Hawkeyes took down the Cyclones 75-56 in an early December matchup.
The Hawkeyes are a very solid 3-point shooting team, hitting 34.3% of shots from beyond the arc this season, and while Auburn has improved from downtown late in the season, they are still at 31.4% for the year. There is also a difference at the free throw line, with the Hawkeye shooting 73.9% at the charity stripe compared to Auburn's 70.2%.
The majority of Iowa’s scoring comes from forwards Kris Murray, Flip Rebraca and Patrick McCaffrey, which does match up well with Auburn’s defense built around Johni Broome, Jaylin Williams and Allen Flanigan, but Auburn will be facing another team that has a size advantage. There is only one contributor in the Hawkeyes’ rotation that is under 6’4”, Ahrom Ulis. Meanwhile for Auburn, four players in the rotation stand at under 6’3”, with Lior Berman being the biggest guard in the lineup at 6’4”.
In Auburn’s slugfest with Arkansas, the Razorbacks crushed the Tigers on the glass, winning the battle 39-17 and ultimately taking home the tournament victory. Iowa averages 12 offensive rebounds per game, and that is likely to be one of the biggest factors in deciding the first round matchup.
Auburn and Iowa tip-off from Birmingham on Thursday at 5:50 p.m., with the game being broadcast live on TNT.
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