Auburn coach Joe Ciampi tried to put a positive spin on the announcement that Auburn will play next Sunday in Bridgeport, Conn., however, his players were not happy with being a seventh seed when five other SEC teams went into the field as higher seeds.
"I think it is going to be a tough one," says senior center Mandisa Stevenson, who notes that she was expecting a higher seed for her team. "I still looking forward to it. I think we are going to do well as long as we stay focused and go out there and work for it."
The Tigers are 21-8 and North Carolina State is 17-14. The winner of that game will play on Tuesday, March 23rd in Bridgeport vs. either UConn or Penn, the 15th seed from the Ivy League that has a 17-10 record. Connecticut is 25-4 and the second seed in the East Region.
Meanwhile, the men's team practiced on Sunday to get ready for an NIT game that is not coming. Auburn was not included in the NIT field that was announced on Sunday night. Coach Cliff Ellis' team ends its season at 14-14 overall. Last year the men's team advanced to the Sweet 16 round with victories over St. Joe's and Wake Forest.
"It has been a tough year, and we are disappointed not to be in postseason play," Ellis said Sunday night. "We only had a healthy team for six games the entire season. It's time to put 2003-04 season behind us. We are now going to move into our offseason program to get us to where we want to be for next year."
Ciampi told told his basketball players that they need to unpack their heavy jackets and take a positive attitude with them on their trip north. He also told a disappointed crowd of Auburn fans who gathered at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum for the announcement that he wishes the Tigers could have been sent to a site closer to home.
However, he notes that it could have been worse. "It doesn't bother me in terms of where we are seeded as long as we have an opponent we can compete against," says Ciampi, who is in his 25th season as Auburn's head coach. "You look at Tennessee (one seed Midwest Region), Vanderbilt (second seed Midwest) and Florida (fifth seed in the Midwest) in one region. That would bother me. The opportunity to play outside competition is what we are about."
Ciampi says he likes the fact that Auburn is the only SEC team in the East Regional and he says he thinks the opening round opponent is a good draw for the Tigers. "Against North Carolina State, I think we match up well," he says.
"I would be upset if I won the tournament and I was the second seed and had to play Tennessee to get out of the region," Ciampi adds, noting what happened to the Vandy team that won the the SEC Tournament aided by a controversial call that enabled the Lady Commodores to edge Auburn by two points in the quarter-finals.
Ciampi says he has seen North Carolina State and UConn play this season and thinks the Tigers match up well with both teams in style of play. He notes that he watched two teams with similar matchup zones to Auburn's, Boston College and Villanova, defeat UConn this season. "If we have that opportunity, we will feel fortunate having a chance to compete against them," Ciampi says of UConn. "Right now the task is of playing on Sunday is our most important thought."
The Tigers will practice on Monday, take a day off on Tuesday and practice Wednesday and Thursday before catching a flight to travel to Brigeport, Conn. "We just finished five good days of practice going back to fundamentals," Ciampi says.
All-SEC senior forward Le'Coe Willingham couldn't hide her disappointment at the draw. "I am kind of ‘mixy' about the seeding, but hey, ‘Just make the best of it.'"
Ciampi told his players who gathered at the scholarship room with the coaching staff and fans that sulking about the seed would do no good. "If you are feeling sorry for yourself, you don't belong in this tournament," he told his players. "If you are afraid, buy a dog, but we have got to go and play. Everybody has hurt feelings, but we had a chance to be a No. 1 seed. We had a chance to win the SEC Tournament, but that is history. It is all about the future. We have a great opportunity. After you get the first game under your belt, it is all about being focused. The coaching staff will be focused. The seniors will be focused. Everyone will fall in suit to be ready to play."
To be winners on the court, senior center Stevenson says the formula is rather simple. "I think our defense has helped us be successful this year," she notes. "Defense and rebounding are what will carry us in this tournament. We lost a tough one at the SEC Tournament, but we just have to let that one go and get ready to play North Carolina State."
Last season the Tigers won their five final five postseason games to take the WNIT title with a 64-63 win at Baylor in the championship game. AU is back in the NCAA Tournament after a three-year absence. In their last trip to the big dance, the Tigers defeated Southwest Missouri State in the first round and then lost to Penn State in a game in State College, Pa.
Penn State, which is 25-5, is the No. 1 seed in the East Regional this season.
This will be the 16th NCAA Tournament appearance for the Tigers under Ciampi.
Tickets for the regional $35 in Bridgeport and can be ordered by calling the Arena at Harbor Yard Ticket Office at 203-254-4000, extension 4136. The Tigers have a 27-15 record in NCAA Tournament games and have advanced to the Sweet 16 10 times, the Elite Eight six times and the Final Four three times.