Tigers Have Something To Prove In NCAA Opener

The 10th-seeded Auburn Tigers face the sevent-seeded St. Joseph's Hawks Friday morning in the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

Tampa, Fla.--All season the Auburn Tigers have heard about how bad they were going to be or how they couldn't win this game or that game. It didn't seem to bother them on the way to the NCAA Tournament and a 20-win season, but that still didn't keep the critics at bay.

Hearing their name bashed on national television during the selection show by Dick Vitale and Digger Phelps, Auburn players Derrick Bird and Marquis Daniels said they're ready to show the world what this team is made of when the Tigers open NCAA play on Friday at 11:25 a.m. CST vs. St. Joseph's.

"The whole year we haven't been expected to do well," Bird said. "We were picked last in our conference and it has been a trend throughout the whole year. ‘They shouldn't do well in the conference, they shouldn't be in the championship game, they shouldn't be in the tournament.' We've been proving people wrong all year and I think we're going to go out there and prove people wrong again in this tournament. It's nothing new. It's incentive to keep us going and playing together as a team. Our Auburn fans and us are just staying together and that's all we have really."

Derrick Bird shoots Thursday morning in Tampa at the St. Pete Times Forum, site of Auburn's East regional game.

The season hasn't gone as expected with two players having deaths in the family and injuries to key players have kept the emotions on a roller coaster ride. Most recently the death of guard Troy Gaines' father put a damper on the NCAA Tournament bid. Daniels said the season has taught the team that togetherness is the most important thing they can have.

"We had a lot of things that interfered with us this season," Daniels said. "Earlier in the season Brandon Robinson couldn't play and then with the loss of Troy's father, we all had to stay together and unite and encourage each other to stay strong. We know without each other we wouldn't be here right now. We just have to stay focused and keep each other up mentally and physically and we'll be okay."

The most experienced player on Auburn's team, Daniels is the only Tiger with experience in the NCAA Tournament. Receiving playing time as a freshman in Auburn's games against Creighton and Iowa State in Minneapolis three seasons ago, the Orlando native said that he hopes to counsel the young players so they'll know exactly what to expect Friday morning.

"Everybody right now is at the top of their game right now and you have to be at the top of yours and come out and play a top game both offensively and defensively," Daniels said. "You just have to be aggressive on both ends. That's something I've told the young guys. I kind of have the experience from playing in 2000 and I think it's going to pay off when I tell the guys what to expect."

Marquis Daniels talks with Brandon Robinson during Auburn's shoot-around Thursday.

The challenge the Tigers will face against the Hawks is one of the best guards in the country in Jameer Nelson. An explosive scorer with the ability to take the ball off the glass and go coast-to-coast, Nelson will be a challenge for Bird, Auburn's defensive stopper. If he's able to slow down Nelson it will bode well for Auburn's chances to advance.

"He's a very good player," Bird said. "He shoots the ball well and he can penetrate. He sets his teammates up well. He's just a well-rounded player. He rebounds well, too. He's just a complete player and I just have to play defense on all aspects. He can penetrate and shoot. We're just going to look forward to 'd'ing up' and helping each other out. All their guards are very good. We just have to come out here and try our best to stop them."

No matter the outcome in Friday's game, you can bet that the excitement nor disappointment will be more subdued that normal because of the war in Iraq. Fielding questions about the war for much of the day, the Tigers and Coach Cliff Ellis said their thoughts would be on the soldiers guarding our freedom and democratic society as soon as the final horn sounds Friday.

At this time it's hard to think of much else. "This is a game," Ellis said. "Basketball is a game. We have people fighting for their lives. We're fighting to win a game and they're fighting for our lives and their lives. If there's not anybody in here or out there that doesn't have that on their minds, then you don't have it in perspective in my opinion."

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