Picked by many to be the weakest team in the Southeastern Conference this season, Auburn finished second in the SEC West and actually led the division much of the year before being caught by Mississippi State, which defeated the Tigers on the last day of the regular season to win the divisional title.
On Friday morning at 11:25 Central time in Tampa, Fla., Bird and his teammates will continue their theme of playing to earn respect as the 10th-seeded Tigers play seventh-seeded St. Joseph's in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
"Regardless of what people think, it is a proven fact that the conference is the best or it is between us and the Big 12 for the best conference in the country," Bird says. "We played very well in our conference." Auburn is one of six SEC teams that earned invitations into the NCAA field of 65. The Big 12 also got six representatives into the tournament.
Bird contends the Tigers earned their way into the NCAA Tournament with a second place finish in the SEC West and by advancing to the semi-finals of the league tournament in New Orleans last week. Bird and his coach Cliff Ellis note that the Tigers' RPI rating (36 nationally) and schedule strength ranking (26th nationally) made the Tigers a good pick for the big dance. "It is a wonderful feeling to be in the tournament," Bird says. "I am just proud of everybody."
After defeating Tennessee in New Orleans on Friday and losing to Kentucky on Saturday, Bird says he was very anxious to find out his team's fate from the NCAA's selection committee on Sunday. The looks on his face before the announcement and after the announcement of Auburn's bid told the story of how important finishing his senior season in the tournament is to Bird. "I was real nervous, just like everybody else," he says. "We couldn't wait to see. It was getting a little wild down there in the locker room. It just felt good to be there when we were put in there, and we deserve to be in there."
Auburn's opponent, St. Joe's out of the Atlantic 10 conference, brings a 23-6 record to Tampa for Friday's game at the St. Pete Times Forum arena. The Hawks are led by one of the top players in the Atlantic 10 conference, six-foot junior point guard Jameer Nelson, who is averaging 19.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. Bird, whose strength is his defensive play, will likely draw the assignment of guarding Nelson. The six-foot-four Auburn senior says he looks forward to the challenge. "That excites me more than anything," he says with a smile. "The two years I have been down here I have loved to take on the top scorer."
The Tigers and the Hawks have no common opponents and Bird says he didn't see any St. Joe's games on TV this year. However, he is aware of the school that is one of the "Big Five" of Philadelphia college hoops. "I have seen their teams in the past and they are very guard oriented," Bird says. "I think we are going to have to focus in on playing very good team defense and try to stop their penetration and shooters. We have got to focus in on playing hard. They are going to be a very tough basketball team. If we come in and play together and go by the game plan, we will be all right."
Being all right would mean advancing as the lower seed to round two where the Tigers would likely play a two seed, ACC champion Wake Forest. Many expect that won't happen. Bird says he isn't worried about that.
"We were picked to be last in our conference," he says. "We have already proven a lot of people wrong. Whatever people think about us being in the tournament, they can be proven wrong, too. We are going to come in and focus on playing ball and playing together. That is what we have been doing all year."