Tigers Can Change The Storyline Again

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the NCAA Basketball Tournament from Albany, New York where he is covering the Auburn Tigers.

Albany, Ga.--There is no better, more dramatic event in college sports than the NCAA basketball tournament. It is a time when Butler can dream of winning a national championship, when the little guys can believe they can beat the big guys.

It is a time, when three weeks after an embarrassing and ugly loss at Mississippi State, Auburn can find itself in the Sweet 16 preparing for tonight's East Region semifinal against Syracuse. There are so many variables in basketball. Shots that fall one game don't fall the next. Games are officiated differently. Teams match up well with one team and might not match up as well with another lesser talented team.

This tournament could so easily have a very different look. If Marquis Daniels' three-point shot with six seconds left against St. Joseph's had been off the mark, Auburn would be at home labeled as a team that never should have been there in the first place. A Gonzaga layup that wouldn't fall gave Arizona a reprieve. A hope and a prayer sent Maryland on against North Carolina-Wilmington. A blown Milwaukee-Wisconsin layup gift-wrapped a victory for Notre Dame, sparking a week of Big East hysteria on ESPN.

It is in this tournament that heroes are born and careers made. Not so long ago, Cliff Ellis' future as Auburn's head coach was open to debate. The debate is over. Not only will Ellis be back as Auburn's head coach, he will have two years added to his contract, giving him a total of six years. One of the incentives in the contract he signed after the 1999 season is an automatic two-year extension if he takes his team to the Sweet 16.

Who had heard of Butler guards Darnell Archey and Brandon Miller before the Bulldogs stunned Mississippi State and Louisville to make it into tonight's East semi-final against Oklahoma? Daniels, already a regional star, has become a national star. For the first time, the nation knows that Derrick Bird is a defender with few equals.

It's also interesting how the storyline changes. For the past week, we have been bombarded with praise for the Big East. Thursday night, two of the Big East's four teams were sent home. One of them, Pittsburgh, was thought by many to be a real threat to Kentucky's national championship aspirations.

Auburn has an opportunity tonight to change the storyline again. The Tigers have been a nice, heart-warming story to this point. If they pull an upset against Syracuse, they will suddenly be much more. They will have to be viewed as a legitimate threat to win it all.

For that to happen, they will have to find a way to deal with Syracuse freshman superstar Carmelo Anthony without paying so much attention to him that other Syracuse players are able to score points in bunches.

I'll be surprised if Auburn is able to pull it off in what is essentially a home game for Syracuse, but I'm already surprised. I certainly didn't expect to be spending this weekend in Albany, N.Y. I don't believe Auburn's players will be surprised if they win. In fact, I think they'll be surprised if they don't.

This is not the same Auburn team that looked so hopelessly overmatched against Mississippi State. I think the Tigers will give a good account of themselves tonight, but I believe the overwhelmingly partisan Syracuse crowd will have an impact on the game. And I believe Syracuse, which has won after trailing in the second half an amazing 14 times this season, will win a close one.

Elsewhere in the tournament

Butler, the real Cinderella story of this tournament, will play No. 1 seed Oklahoma in the first game tonight. The Bulldogs are an impressive and well-spoken bunch. They didn't get here by accident, beating Mississippi State and Louisville.

Oklahoma is another story. My guess is the Sooners will be too much, but maybe there really is magic in Hinkle Fieldhouse. That, of course, is where the championship game in the movie Hoosiers was filmed.

Kentucky's victory tour just got a lot tougher. The Wildcats knocked off Wisconsin on Thursday, but star guard Keith Bogans suffered a high ankle sprain. It is unlikely he will be much of a factor in Saturday's regional championship game against Marquette. The Golden Eagles looked plenty impressive in beating Pittsburgh and could be a real threat to Kentucky.

My picks for the Final Four: Oklahoma (East), Michigan State (South), Kentucky (Midwest), Arizona (West). The national champion? Kentucky if Bogans is able to play full-speed. Arizona if he isn't.

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