AUBURN — Auburn basketball will be in the second round for the 11th time in 12 trips to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers have not lost a first-round matchup since their first-ever appearance in the tournament, a one-point loss to Richmond in 1984. Auburn is moving on, and to right the wrongs of last season and make it to the second weekend, the team will have to make it through one of the best teams in the country, No. 1 Houston(32-3, 17-1 AAC).
The Cougars are not the No. 1 overall seed, but they have been near the top of the country throughout the season and the duo of Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead. The guards are the engine of the Cougars' offense, which averages 74.7 points per game this season. Sasser is Houston's leading scorer, with 16.7 points per game, and he is a threat from downtown, making 38.2% of his shots from beyond the arc this season. Shead is more of a floor general, averaging 10.4 points per game while adding 5.4 assists and 1.8 steals.
The two have been vital to Houston's run of dominance this season, but both have suffered injury problems in recent weeks. Sasser went down in the AAC semifinal vs. Cincinnati, and was unable to go in the AAC championship loss to Memphis. Sasser tried to go in Thursday's matchup with No. 16 Northern Kentucky, but he left the game in the first half and did not return for the remainder of the game. The Cougars took down the Norse without Sasser, 63-52.
"We're planning on him playing. He tried to go the other night against Northern Kentucky," said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl on game planning for Sasser. "But we're expecting him to be out there. And he makes a big difference for him because he is such a dynamic offensive player. You know, one of the best guards in the entire country."
After the win, Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson also revealed to Tracy Wolfson that Shead is dealing with a knee injury.
Regardless of Sasser and Shead's health, Auburn is dealing with the No. 2 team in the nation and one of the most complete units in the country. Along with a relentless offense, the Cougars bring a stout defense that gives up just 56.4 points per game, holding opponents to shooting 36% from the floor.
"They're a physical team," said sophomore Johni Broome. "They want to try to make you uncomfortable and make you take bad shots, but we just have to execute our offense well and get the shots that we want to take."
Broome was one of the keys to Auburn's first-round victory on Thursday, becoming the first SEC player with at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks in an NCAA Tournament since 2012—the last player to do that before Broome was Anthony Davis.
Houston does not have a player on the roster that is as tall as Broome, but the Cougars have won the rebound battle throughout the season, averaging over 12 offensive boards per game and 41 overall.
"They're a physical team. You know, a lot of veterans. Just got to get to the drawing board," Broome said when asked about preparing for Houston.
Auburn has faced five No. 1 seeds in program history, with three of those matchups featuring the Tigers as the No. 8 seed. When they play Houston tomorrow, it will be in the No. 9 spot as Auburn looks for its third win over a No. 1 seed.
The Tigers actually won their first contest versus a No. 1 seed, taking down St. Johns in 1986. Auburn, led by Sonny Smith at the time, made it to the Elite Eight that year.
The Tigers would make it back to the NCAA Tournament in each of the next two seasons but lost to a pair of No. 1 seeds in Indiana and Oklahoma, with each opponent scoring 107 points to take down Auburn.
It would be 31 years until Auburn faced another No. 1 seed, and the Tigers met two during the Final Four run in 2019. Auburn dismantled No. 1 seed North Carolina before dropping the Final Four contest to No. 1 Virginia.
"In a situation that we're in, there may be a little less pressure on us, more of an opportunity. The prize of being a No. 1 seed is great. It would be historic for us," said Pearl. "I think all year long teams like Houston or Kansas or Alabama or the No. 1 seeds in our tournament are the teams that I think every college player would like to try to have an opportunity to play, but you've got to be careful what you wish for."
Auburn is just 1-6 all-time versus Houston, and the Tigers have not beaten the Cougars since a 1962 game in New Orleans. Three of the six losses have been decided by one possession.
Auburn will get their wish tomorrow when the Tigers face No. 1 Houston at Legacy Arena in Birmingham. The second round contest is scheduled to tip-off at 6:10 p.m. CST and will be broadcast on TBS.
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