That is when the Tigers return to the NCAA Basketball Tournament after missing the last two. The 20-11 Tigers will be facing the East regional's seventh-seed St. Joseph, a 23-6 club that posted a 12-4 record in the Atlantic 10 conference. The Hawks' success is primarily due to its guards. Coach Phil Martelli regularly plays three at a time and sometimes goes with a center or a forward plus four guards.
Monroe says the Tigers will have to play "team defense" to be successful against St. Joe's. "I know they take a lot of shots around the perimeter," the sophomore point guard notes. "What we want to do is make them take bad shots, guarded shots."
That means he and senior Derrick Bird and the other Auburn guards will have to get up tight on the St. Joe's scorers like point guard Jameer Nelson, making it easier for those players to get past the defense if they decide to go hard to the basket. To prevent that from being a successful option, the Tigers will count on the SEC's top shot blocker, 6-10, 235 junior center Kyle Davis, to discourage the Hawk guards from trying to score inside.
"We want to take them to Kyle," says Monroe. "We want to pressure them." The guard says he isn't sure if St. Joe's has played a shot blocker like Davis. "If they haven't it, it is definitely something they will have to adjust to."
Monroe says the Tigers want to win and advance in NCAA play for a variety of reasons. Among the top ones are to keep the season going for seniors Bird, forward Marquis Daniels and walk-on forward Donny Calton. Even more incentive to do well has been provided by some critics who questioned whether the Tigers deserved an invitation this season. The loudest complainer is ESPN's Dick Vitale.
Monroe says he heard Vitale questioning his team and says the Tigers plan to use that as a motivator. "It just put more fire in us telling everybody we shouldn't be there," the point guard says." It just makes us want to play even harder."
Fellow sophomore starter Marco Killingsworth agrees and adds, "I thinking he was talking up Texas Tech. Bobby Knight is probably his boy so he was going to try to make him look good. You can look at our conference and tell we are the toughest. We earned ours." Knight is the head coach of Texas Tech, a team that did not make the NCAA field.
Coach Cliff Ellis also has comments on Vitale's remarks made on national TV. "He needs to do his homework," says Ellis who adds, "He is just wrong with his facts." Vitale has been critical of AU's schedule. "Our schedule is fourth in the conference," Ellis says. The Tigers' schedule is ranked 27th nationally by CollegeRPI.com. According to the rating, only 14 of the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament field faced a tougher schedule than the Tigers.
Auburn will leave for Tampa on a charter flight on Wednesday evening and will work out at midday on Friday at the 21,817-seat St. Pete Times Forum, the site of Auburn's game vs. St. Joe's.
Ellis says the Hawks are a well coached team and a team that had a great year. "They opened with a bang with a win over Boston College and never looked back," he says. The Auburn coach says he is not surprised his Tigers are in the NCAA Tournament field after a two year absence. "I thought we were going to be pretty good," he notes.
NCAA Tournament Notes: Ian Eagle is the play by play announcer for the Auburn game on CBS. Jim Spanarkel, a former Duke star, is the color analyst. Tipoff time is set for 11:25 a.m. CST. There is a possibility that coverage will be moved to cable networks such as MTV, TV Land, ESPN or others if a war in Iraq becomes the focus of around-the-clock coverage by CBS...Auburn leads the series with St. Joseph's 1-0, defeating the Hawks 66-64 in a tournament on Dec. 18, 1956 in Charlotte, N.C...Ellis says he expects to see old friends in Tampa at the tournament dating back to his days as a young coach at the high school level at Vanguard in Ocala, Fla...Auburn posted a 4-8 record against teams in the NCAA Tournament field...Auburn has a 10-7 all-time record in NCAA games...Auburn reserve guard Troy Gaines is expected to join the team in Tampa after attending his father's funeral on Thursday in Arizona. His father, Dwight, died unexpectedly after suffering a heart attack.