When I was sitting courtside in Starkville just a little over two weeks ago watching Mississippi State dismantle Auburn's basketball team, I would never have imagined I would be writing today about the Tigers going to the Sweet 16. The Tigers, it seemed, had lost the edge that took them to a 4-0 Southeastern Conference start. Yet, here I am, getting ready to pack up and leave Tampa, go home and hug the wife and kids, and head for Albany, N.Y., to see Auburn play Syracuse in the East Region semi-finals. How did it happen? How did Auburn, the No. 10 seed, suddenly jump up and beat the No. 7 seed, St. Joseph's, and the No. 2 seed, Wake Forest. There's no magic to it, really.
Marquis Daniels is a great player and he took up his game to even another level. It's cliche to say great players are at their best in the biggest of games, but it's true. That alone, though, wouldn't have been enough. Lewis Monroe, much-maligned at times this season, is showing himself a point guard with talent and a very bright future. Derrick Bird has been a true star on defense. Kyle Davis has been a powerful inside force on defense.
Auburn's four sophomores--who head coach Cliff Ellis has predicted would do big things since they were struggling freshmen last season--are obviously growing up. Has any player come further than point guard Monroe, who played a masterful floor game and hit the three-pointer that gave Auburn the lead over Wake Forest? Was there a bigger play in Sunday's win over Wake Forest than Nathan Watson's rebound basket that tied the game at 48? Killingsworth was a man inside. So was Brandon Robinson.
And, oh yes, there is Ellis. He's the coach whose future at Auburn was thought by many to be in jeopardy just a few weeks ago. And there's Shannon Weaver, Charlton Young and Tracy Dildy, his assistants. Few Auburn teams have ever seemed better prepared than this one was against St. Joseph's and Wake Forest.
Auburn is 22-11 now. It is one of two SEC teams left standing in the NCAA Tournament. By any measure, whatever happens against Syracuse on Friday, this has been a successful season. Those four sophomores will make Auburn a force to be reckoned with for two more seasons if they stay together.
Can the Tigers beat Syracuse? They'll be underdogs, but at this point, I don't write this team off. It'll be even tougher because it will be like a road game since Albany is just a short drive from Syracuse, but players made it very clear Sunday night that they aren't satisfied with just getting there. They want to move on.
Some tournament impressions from Tampa include:
*I know they were surprised and disappointed, but I thought both St. Joseph's Phil Martelli and Wake Forest's Skip Prosser could have been more gracious in defeat. Both coaches offered congratulations to Auburn, but both spent a lot more time talking about what their teams didn't do.
*Wake Forest's Josh Howard is an All-American and ACC Player of the Year. He's a great talent who will play in the NBA, but he's not the best player I saw this weekend. The best two players I saw on the court in Tampa were Daniels and St. Joseph's guard Jameer Nelson. The show they put on down the stretch of Friday's game was truly memorable.
*Has Auburn ever had a better defender than Derrick Bird? I can't remember one.
*What happened to the SEC, widely considered the nation's toughest conference? I was shocked by the early exits of Mississippi State and LSU. Despite Butler's Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 and its victory over Louisville, Mississippi State had a massive physical advantage. LSU's three-point shooting streak finally fizzled. I don't guess John Brady could come up with any excuses for an 80-56 rout. After watching Michigan State on Friday, I wasn't surprised that the Spartans beat Florida. I was surprised that it was a blowout. Alabama just played the way it had played for most of the season. Does it mean the SEC wasn't as strong as advertised? Who knows? Strange things happen in the NCAA Tournament.
*One of the great things about Auburn's run is that Daniels is finally getting his due. Auburn, picked to finish last in the SEC, didn't have a single nationally televised game during the regular season. People in the SEC knew about Daniels, but nationwide he was largely unknown. He's known now.
*There is something really special about the chemistry on this Auburn team. With Daniels and Bird showing the way, they truly are the epitome of a team. They care about one another on and off the court. They have earned two of the bigger wins in school history because they played unselfish basketball. The first man to leap off the bench to celebrate Sunday was Rodney Tucker, who didn't play a second in the game.
*If Auburn could have hit wide-open three-point shots, Sunday's game wouldn't have been close. The Tigers will need to hit some of those against Syracuse's 2-3 zone. Until next time...