Senior Guard Enjoying The Ride

Derrick Bird has been a key component of Auburn's success in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Albany, N.Y.--Derrick Bird is enjoying the final days of his collegiate basketball career so much that a little criticism, or even a lot of criticism, isn't going to get him down.

The six-foot-four senior guard has been smiling ever since he achieved a long-held dream of getting a chance to play in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. After Auburn's selection as an at-large team, there were more than a few basketball pundits crying that there were more deserving teams to invite, however Bird and his teammates have made the critics look foolish by defeating St. Joe's and Wake Forest to advance to the Sweet 16 round.

When the Tigers take the floor again on Friday night vs. a powerful Syracuse team in Albany, the believers in the Tigers will certainly be outnumbered by the doubters, but Bird says that won't bother him.

"I don't know who all thinks what we can do," he says. "We just don't look at it. Really, we don't pay attention. It doesn't matter. A lot of people didn't think we should be in the tournament. We just look forward to keep surprising people. All we do know is that we have each other. That is the main thing.

"People who come along now or people who don't come along now on our side, it really doesn't matter," Bird adds. "It just doesn't matter because all we have had the whole year is each other. That is what we are going to focus in on this game. There are going to be a lot of Syracuse fans. We are going to be in their backyard. We have just got to focus on staying mentally tough knowing that all we have is each other."

Bird has no problem dealing with tough. He played through a series of nagging injuries late in the season and never backed down from a challenge. He usually was assigned the job of covering an opposing team's best player.

Fellow senior Marquis Daniels has high praise for his teammate. "He is one of the best defensive players I have ever seen and he has stepped up and made big threes for us when we needed them," Daniels says. "Every game he has to guard one of the best defenders on the other team and he pretty much locks them up every game.

"I asked him, ‘Man, how do you keep playing defense like this every game?' I get tired. He just does a great job on defense. Anybody who can play defense against one of the top scorers every game is very tough. He wants to do it."

Bird says he "relishes the challenge" of taking on whoever Coach Cliff Ellis decides that Bird needs to put the clamps on with his defense. Ellis has obvious respect for the 6-4, 195-pound senior guard. "Defense is an attitude and he has that attitude and he has the strength and mobility to go along with it," Ellis says.

Daniels says there is even more to Bird's success. "He has great strength on the ball," Daniels notes. "He is able to hold his ground, he moves his feet well and he gets his hands on a lot of shots and he contests every shot. A lot of guys aren't used to seeing that. He is a big guard as well. He is 6-4 or 6-5 and when most guys go up for a shot, he is right on top of them."

Auburn's impressive victories over Tennessee in the SEC Tournament and St. Joe's plus Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament have earned the Tigers some national respect. Bird says he has noticed, but adds, "I think it is great, but we are not focused on it at all. We are focused in on Syracuse and what we need to do to come out with another win."

Bird and the Tigers will try to advance beyond the Sweet 16 with a Friday night test vs. Syracuse. Game time is approximately 8:40 p.m. CST from the Pepsi Center here in Albany. Syracuse, the No. 3 seed, is the favorite. Tenth-seed Auburn has already won two times as a lower seed in the NCAA Tournament. Bird says his team is going to take its best shot to survive and advance to the Elite Eight and says the team chemistry is good and notes a team that counts heavily on four sophomores has settled into its roles.

"It is all about winning and all about wanting to do more for the team," Bird says. "Everybody understands that and respects that. The coaches have done an excellent job of keeping us together all year, keeping us strong. I think it has paid off at the right time."

Friday night, Bird could have one of his toughest challenges ever if he is assigned to guard Carmelo Anthony, a 6-8, 220-pound forward with guard-like skills. Bird, who studies video of opponents, is impressed with the Syracuse star. "He is a great player and it is tough to shut down any great player, but I am just going to do the best I can to help this team win," Bird says.

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