Auburn's highest seed for the tournament was No. 1 in 1999 when the Tigers reached the Sweet 16 before being upset 72-64 by Ohio State, a fourth seed. That team, coached by Cliff Ellis, walloped 16th seed Winthrop 80-41 and got past ninth-seeded Oklahoma State 81-74 in the first two rounds.
AU's deepest run in NCAA men's tournament was to the Elite Eight in 1986 as an eighth seed before falling to eventual champion Louisville.
Ellis, whose team is 20-11 coming into the 2003 Tournament, said he hasn't studied the bracket enough to know if Auburn's No. 10 seed looks right, but he says that he was confident his team would make the field of 65 teams despite speculation that his Tigers were on the bubble. He pointed to an RPI of 36 and a strength of schedule rating of 22 as being key factors along with the team's record in conference games.
"I feel like our team certainly played its way in it and deserved it as a number two seed in the SEC West and made it to the semi-finals of the SEC Tournament," Ellis says. "I thought our team responded throughout this year in a very positive way. I am happy for them because that is what it is all about--the players."
St. Joseph's is 23-6 overall and the Philadelphia school posted a 12-4 conference record. The Tigers and Hawks have no common opponents this season. The two teams have met just once in basketball with the Tigers winning that one back in 1956.
Ellis says he knows St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli and has respect for the job he has done with the Hawks. "He runs a lot of defenses," Ellis says. "He has had a good run. He has done a good job." The two coaches have crossed paths at different functions over the years, Ellis notes, including a summer golf tournament. "He is a heck of a lot better basketball coach than he is a golfer, I will tell you that," Ellis says.
The game vs. St. Joseph's will be the first NCAA Tournament action for Auburn sophomore forward Marco Killingsworth.
St. Joseph is averaging 70.6 points per game and giving up 59.3 as it likes to control the tempo of games with a guard-oriented system. Jameer Nelson, a six-foot junior guard from Chester, Pa., is considered one of the top players in the Atlantic 10 and is the leader of the Hawks with averages of 19.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.
The Hawks defeated LaSalle 68-48 in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament before losing to Dayton 76-73 in the semi-finals on Dayton's homecourt.
Auburn received a first round bye for the SEC Tournament after finishing second to Mississippi State in the SEC West. The Tigers knocked out Tennessee in the quarter-finals and stayed with SEC champion Kentucky for a half before the Wildcats pulled away in the second period to take their 22nd straight victory, a streak extended to 23 with a victory over SEC West divisional winner Mississippi State in the league championship game on Sunday in New Orleans.
Auburn senior Marquis Daniels, who was named The Birmingham News SEC Player of the Year, says that he was impressed with St. Joe's from watching the Hawks in a TV game this season. Daniels is one of two Tigers scoring in double figures at 17.9 points per game and is joined by sophomore forward Marco Killingsworth, who is averaging 13.6 per contest.
Ellis says his team is looking forward to its trip to Tampa for the Friday game vs. St. Joseph's that will be played at the St. Pete Times Forum, the home arena of Tampa's National Hockey League team. "The players are excited," Ellis says, who adds, "It was good to see them feel that way."
The winner of the Tigers vs. Hawks game advances to the second round on Sunday vs. the winner of a matchup pitting No. 2 seed Wake Forest vs. 15th-seed East Tennessee State.
Tickets to the Auburn vs. St. Joseph game can be ordered by calling the Auburn Ticket Office at 1-800-AUB-1957 or the arena in Tampa at (813) 301-2500.