Basketball Tigers Wearing Big Smiles

Auburn players and Cliff Ellis discuss their NCAA Tournament bid.

Auburn, Ala.--The tension was so thick you could almost cut it with a knife.

As Auburn's players and coaches gathered at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum on Sunday to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, the looks on the faces of the Auburn players, both before and after the big announcement, told how much getting a chance to play in this event means to the Tigers.

"This is a dream come true for me," said senior guard Derrick Bird, who joined his teammates for a group hug after the TV screen flashed up a first round matchup in Tampa pitting the Tigers as a 10th-seed vs. seventh-seed St. Joseph's of the Atlantic 10 in the opening round of the East regional. By the time the celebration ended, none of the players had any clue what other teams were in that part of the bracket, but it didn't matter at the moment. It was time to celebrate.

The Tigers celebrate on Sunday at the players' lounge at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.

As senior forward Marquis Daniels admitted afterwards, "I was nervous."

This will be Auburn's eighth trip to the big dance and the second for Daniels, who played for two rounds as a freshman when the Tigers defeated Creighton and lost to Iowa State. This year's opponent, St. Joseph's lost in the semi-finals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament while Auburn lost in the semi-finals of the SEC Tournament. The Hawks are 23-6 overall and feature one of the top guard tandems in the country in 6-0 Jameer Nelson (19.3 points per game) and 6-3 Delonte West (17.6)

Auburn defeated Tennessee on Friday in the SEC quarter-finals in New Orleans and fell to SEC Champion Kentucky in the semi-finals. The Wildcats are the SEC's top seed for the tournament as a No. 1 and are joined in the NCAA field by Florida, LSU, Misssissippi State and Alabama, which many assumed would be left out after faltering down the stretch. Tennessee got left out and Bird said he felt bad for the Volunteers. "They are a good team," he noted.

Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said he wasn't nervous about getting a bid and explained his reasoning. "We are fourth in the overall RPI in our league (not counting Georgia). We have the fourth best schedule. When all is said and done our RPI is 36 and our schedule is 22. You look at other teams--Alabama 38 RPI, schedule 16. LSU 39, schedule 55. Those three all split with one another...We finished in the top four in the regular season. We finished in the top four in the conference tournament. I felt like we should have been in."

Tournament Notes: Auburn is allotted 350 tickets for Friday's opening round NCAA Tournament game at the St. Petersburg Times Forum in Tampa. Call 1-800-AUB-1957 to get tickets in the Auburn section. There are 1,000 seats available by calling the arena directly at 1-813-301-2500....Game times are not expected to be announced until Monday afternoon...Auburn is 1-0 all-time vs. St. Joe's, winning a game in 1956 at a holiday tournament in North Carolina.

(More coverage to come.)

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