The big assignment for the Tigers when they face St. Joseph's in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday is controlling St. Joe's star guard Jameer Nelson. One of the top point guards in the country, the six-foot sophomore has carried the Hawks into the NCAA Tournament with his playmaking and scoring abilities. Now it's up to Auburn to make sure this is the end of the road for the four-time Atlantic 10 Player of the Week and his teammates.
With a 23-6 record overall and 12-4 mark in the Atlantic 10, the Hawks have been one of the most consistent teams in the country this season. Boasting wins over NCAA Tournament teams Gonzaga and Pennsylvania as well as victories over Boston College, Temple, and Villanova, St. Joseph's has proven it can play with some of the better teams in the country. The confidence begins with Nelson and his play on the perimeter.
A six-time A-10 Rookie of the Week winner last season, Nelson came back strong and avoided all thoughts of a sophomore jinx. Averaging 19.3 points, five rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, he has the ability to beat players both off the dribble or pull up from the perimeter and drain a long jumper. Although his shooting is just average, making 43.4 percent of his shots overall and 33.5 percent from three-point range, Nelson is similar to Allen Iverson in that he'll keep shooting until the shots fall. It will be important for the Tigers to keep him under wraps the entire game because he's capable of scoring points in bunches.
Auburn coaches note that he is similar to Mo Williams, the point guard from Alabama the Tigers faced twice this season.
Slowing down or even stopping Nelson won't guarantee a victory though as guards Delonte West (6-3, sophomore) and Pat Carroll (6-5, sophomore) are even better shooters from the perimeter, but they don't get the number of shots Nelson does in a game-by-game situation. Playing with a stress fracture in his right fibula that has limited his minutes drastically, West is averaging 17.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per contest. Shooting 48.3 percent from the floor and 81 percent from the free throw line, he is a player who can't be left open or you could pay dearly.
That is an understatement when talking about Carroll. The nation's third leading three-point shooter at 46.3 percent, he is averaging 11.9 points per game and has almost unlimited range. A player from a very successful basketball family, Auburn coach Cliff Ellis says that his team will need to guard Carroll tightly in Tampa.
The three guards will challenge Auburn's perimeter defense, but the Tigers should have the advantage in the paint because of the lack of production from St. Joseph's big men.
At power forward, 6-10 freshman Dave Mallon is expected to get the start. Averaging just 1.5 points and 1.9 rebounds per game, he is mainly used to screen for the outside shooters on the offensive end of the court and has a season high of six points. Center 7-1, 235 senior Alexandre Sazonov is a space eater inside, but doesn't produce very much offense. Although he shoots a team-best 52 percent from the floor, he averages just 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds per contest.
Coming off the bench is the most productive inside player, 6-11, 225 freshman Dwayne Jones, who averages 4.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He's also second in the A-10, averaging 1.9 blocks per contest.
While they may not be known around the country as a basketball power, not a great number of schools can match St. Joseph's 17 NCAA Tournament appearances in school history. Led by Coach Phil Martelli, who has a 149-96 record in his eighth year, the Hawks last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2001. That year they defeated Georgia Tech in the first round before falling to No. 1 seed Stanford in the second round. Their best performance came in 1997 when they made it all the way to the Sweet 16 before falling to Kentucky 76-69.
A pressure defensive team that relies on playing sound man-to-man defense and a team that wants to play fast-paced basketball, St. Joseph's averages 70.6 points per game and allows opponents just 59.3 points per contest. The Hawks lead the nation in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 36.9 percent from the floor this season.
A stat that could become a key one in this game is rebounding. Auburn has outrebounded opponents by 2.1 rebounds per game this season, not overwhelming but certainly better than St. Joseph's, which was outrebounded just barely this season by opponents. Playing a bigger and stronger team than possibly any they've seen outside of Xavier, this could be a tough game in the paint for the Hawks. If it's not, it could be a long day for the Tigers. Auburn needs to establish an inside presence with Marco Killingsworth and let Marquis Daniels do his thing against the Hawks' man-to-man defense. Do those things successfully and Auburn will stand a good chance to face Wake Forest on Sunday with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line.
NCAA Notes: Coach Phil Martelli has a 149-96 record at St. Joe's...Nelson and West were named first team all-conference by the league's coaches. Carroll was a third team selection. West was also named the Atlantic 10's most improved player...St. Joe's is 2-3 vs. NCAA Tournament teams with two losses to league rival Dayton and one to Xavier. The Hawks defeated cross-town rival Penn of the Ivy League and Gonzaga.