College basketball is where those of us with a Midwestern/Eastern bent go to get a break from the SEC. After Alabama & Georgia played for the football title in January, the need was even greater. But there’s no respite from Southeastern Conference athletics this year. According to ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi, SEC basketball would place eight teams in the bracket. Several are looking for their first Final Four trip in program history and foremost among them is Auburn.
Four years ago, Bruce Pearl left the ESPN set to get back into coaching and he’s got Auburn on target for a regular season conference championship—they have a two-game lead with four to play—and a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament per Lunardi’s projections.
Auburn has had just one really good stretch of basketball in program history. That came back in the 1980s, when they made the NCAAs each year from 1984-88. Charles Barkley played at the start of that run and future NBA forward Chuck Person was also a part of it. The Tigers made an Elite Eight in 1986. But otherwise, it’s just been scattered decent seasons here and there and Auburn last danced in March in 2003.
There’s no question this year’s team is going to Dance. The only question is whether this can be the first Auburn team to make a Final Four. They rely on guard Bryce Brown, a long-range gunner who attempts an average of eight treys per game and makes 41%. DeSean Murray, a 6’5” junior forward can score and rebound. Auburn is 12th in the country in offensive efficiency.
Defensively, Auburn ranks 35th in efficiency. That’s pretty good, but worth wondering if it will be enough to make a Final Four—at least presuming the Tigers don’t get any bracket breaks along the way due to upsets. Auburn plays at a very fast tempo, and it’s always a big test to see how teams like that function at the inevitable point when a big game turns into a bit of a grind.
But for Auburn, just to ask these questions is a big breakthrough in of itself. They have believers in Las Vegas, who have them priced at relatively short 16-1 odds to win the national championship. Now we’ll see if they can make a little history.
Lunardi’s ESPN bracket projections include four other SEC schools looking for their maiden Final Four voyage…
Tennessee: This is Rick Barnes’ third year in Knoxville since being chased out of Texas and that move has been better for the Vols than the Longhorns. A pair of 6’5” forwards, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, can score and both average six boards a night. Most noteworthy is that Tennessee is 9th in the nation in defensive efficiency. They’re a projected 4-seed and a defense like that is something any top seed not named Virginia dreads facing.
Alabama: Another third-year coach who’s making the most of an opportunity. Avery Johnson is better known for playing on the San Antonio Spurs’ 1999 NBA champs and hitting the shot that won them the title. Or for coaching the Dallas Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals. Avery has the Crimson Tide currently projected as a 7-seed. They aren’t completely home free, but that does suggest some cushion these next couple weeks.
Texas A&M: This is an interesting case. The Aggies fell to 17-11 last night with a loss to Mississippi State and are 6-9 in league play. But Lunardi has them projected for a 6-seed and if history teaches us anything it’s that the Selection Committee could give a rip about conference record. I don’t agree with that but it’s clearly true. If the ESPN analyst is right—and he often is—A&M has a couple big guys, 6’10” Tyler Davis and 6’8” D.J. Hogg that could present some matchup problems for smaller teams.
Missouri: I was surprised that this school, which takes great pride in its basketball, has never been to a Final Four. They’re a projected 7-seed, with a good coach in Cuonzo Martin. You may recall Martin leading Tennessee to a rare Sweet 16 appearance and also taking Cal to the NCAA Tournament. The head coach clearly gets around, but he’s good at what he does and he’s got a three-point marksman in Kassius Robertson to go with a team very comfortable playing the slower style that March often brings.
And then there’s the three other schools that Lunardi has projected for the Dance, but who have all not been to a Final Four, but have recent national championships…
Kentucky: Big Blue is undoubtedly starved ,with it having been six years since they won it all and three years since they even reached a Final Four. There are first-graders in the Commonwealth who have never seen Kentucky win a championship in their lifetime. If that outrage is to stop, John Calipari needs to find some offense—there’s no good three-point shooters. And he could use highly touted Jarred Vanderbilt, a 6’8” forward who has only played ten games due to injury, to add some punch.
Florida: It’s only been eleven years since Billy Donovan went back-to-back with Al Horford, Joakim Noah & Co, only four years since they reached a Final Four and they made the Elite Eight last season. Any March run this year will come courtesy of Russian-born Egor Koulechev, who averages 14/7 per night. It’s high time someone stepped up and said it—if there’s Russian interference in the March Madness bracket, it will be Koulechev that’s responsible.
Arkansas: Maybe I’m dating myself by calling Arkansas’ 1994 title a “recent national championship”. If this year’s Hogs are going to recapture the magic of Nolan Richardson’s 40 Minutes Of Hell, they’ll do it with the guards. Jaylen Barford and Darryl Macon are each offensive machines and the Hogs have a true post presence in Daniel Gafford, with his 12 points/6 rebounds per game. He’s also a rim protector on defense. Arkansas is only projected as a 10-seed, so it’s premature to say for sure they’ll be in the NCAA, but if they make it, that’s a formula for a dark-horse run.