The East Region semi-final game will tip off at approximately 8:40 p.m. CST at the soldout Pepsi Center in Albany, N.Y. Facing two of the better players in the country in Jameer Nelson from St. Joseph's and Josh Howard from Wake Forest should have the Tigers ready for the all-around talents of super freshman Carmelo Anthony for the Orangemen. At 6-8 with the ability to play both inside and out, he has been a dominating college basketball in his first season like Pervis Ellison in the mid-1980s when he led the Louisville Cardinals to the national title in 1986. Ironically, that Louisville team had to go through Auburn to earn the championship. The comparisons don't end there.
During the 1985-86 season that Auburn team struggled early with losses to Western Kentucky and Southwestern Louisiana. For a team expected to build on the strength of a Sweet 16 appearance the season before, Coach Sonny Smith's team wasn't performing as expected. That changed as the SEC season arrived and the Tigers finished with a 13-5 conference mark.
Still, at just 18-10 overall, the Tigers didn't get much respect from the NCAA Tournament selection committee as they were seeded eighth in the West. The first round game offered a stern test, but the Tigers were up to the challenge with a 10-point victory over Arizona. In the game Chuck Person scored 20 points to carry the Tigers to victory. It was in game two that Person really did his thing. Facing the top seed St. John's Redmen and everybody's All-American Walter "The Truth" Berry, Person scored 27 points and pulled down 15 rebounds to lead the Tigers to an 81-65 "upset" victory and berth in the Sweet 16. The game in Long Beach, Calif., was much more of a blowout than the score indicated with Auburn clearly the superior team.
Auburn's run on the back of Person didn't end there as he scored 25 points with 11 rebounds in Auburn's seven-point victory over fourth-seed UNLV in the West Regional semi-finals. That Vegas team featured one of the top power players in the country, Armon "The Hammer" Gilliam." He scored 21 points and long-range bomber Freddie Banks added 20, but it wasn't enough for the Runnin' Rebels.
Auburn's victory set up a matchup with one of the nation's premier centers in Ellison. With established veterans Herbert Crook, Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner surrounding him. Ellison scored 15 points and added 10 rebounds. He was one of five Cardinals in double figures. Despite Person's 23 points, Auburn didn't have enough depth to contain the high flying Louisville team as the Cardinals advanced on to the national title.
Marquis Daniels drives to the basket against St. Joseph's in the first round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
Flash forward to just one week ago. Experts far and wide talked about Auburn's losses to Western Kentucky (wink, wink) and Western Michigan and how that alone should keep the Tigers at home. Never mind that the team finished second in the SEC West and finished in the Top 25 in the RPI rankings, Few people were certain the Tigers would get a shot to play in Tampa when the NCAA's East Regional opened play, but the Tigers received good news and weren't just happy to be there. Facing an athletic St. Joseph's team, Auburn rode the play of senior Marquis Daniels to victory.
The same would hold true in game two as, despite foul troubled that kept him out of action for much of the second half, Daniels scored 18 points to help the Tigers upset Wake Forest and All-American Howard. Proving to the world that he and his team belonged, Daniels used the blueprint of Person before him to get the Tigers to the Sweet 16 where they have only been four times in history.
The victory sets up a game against Syracuse and Anthony. The United States Basketball Writer's Association National Freshman of the Year, he is averaging 22.2 points and 9.9 rebounds this season in leading the Orangemen to a 26-5 record. A dangerous player on the perimeter, but similar to Daniels and Howard in that he likes to take the ball to the paint, Anthony shot 222 free throws this season, almost a third of Syracuse's total for the year. If he's able to penetrate, it will be up to Kyle Davis and Marco Killingsworth to remain poised and not get into early foul trouble.
Another 6-8 player is a load inside for Coach Jim Boeheim. Hakim Warrick, who averages 15 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, is the bruiser inside and does a good job of punishing opponents in the paint. He teams with 7-0 center Craig Forth to provide solid defensive help in Syracuse's patented 2-3 zone. Along the back with Anthony is rangy 6-6 Kueth Duany. The lone senior among the Orangemen's top six players, he is scoring 13.3 points per game and averaging less than three rebounds. He is the leading three-point shooter on the team at 35.2 percent (74-210).
Close behind is freshman guard Gerry McNamara. Averaging 11.3 points per game, he is a deadly shooter when left open, but has trouble creating off the dribble. He shoots 34.2 percent from behind the arc this season and 91.1 percent from the foul line.
A player capable of taking over a game is reserve freshman Billy Edelin. The 6-4 guard spurred a comeback against Oklahoma State on Sunday and led the Orangemen with 20 points in the 12-point victory. He is a slasher who rarely shoots from outside the paint. This season he has attempted just two three-point baskets. In fact, just three players (Anthony, McNamara and Dueny) have attempted more than three three-point shots this season, unusual in today's brand of wide-open basketball.
Whether or not this trip to face an outstanding freshman turns out like the last remains to be but one thing is for sure regarding Daniels. With his play this postseason, the senior forwrd has established himself as one of the best to ever put on a basketball uniform for the Tigers. There have been better scorers, better rebounders, better passers and better defenders, but few have shown the complete package displayed by Auburn's team captain.