The Auburn Tigers have arrived in Cancun, Mexico for what promises to be a revealing week in Auburn basketball. Auburn is guaranteed to play Texas Tech on Tuesday, followed by either Utah State or Purdue Wednesday. Texas Tech returns a lot of talent from last year's squad that made the NCAA Tournament. Purdue is ranked in the top 20. All three teams--including Utah State--are ranked higher in the Sagarin Ratings than the Tigers.
The pressure hasn't stopped the Tigers from enjoying the trip.
Auburn knows their first opponent will be Texas Tech. Tubby Smith built the Red Raiders into a solid program over the last three seasons before leaving to coach Memphis. Last year, the Red Raiders finished 19-13 and made the NCAA Tournament. Smith was replaced by Arkansas Little Rock coach, Chris Beard.
Tech returns a solid core of experienced starters from last year's team including Zach Smith, Keenan Evans, and Justin Gray. The Red Raiders added a talented JUCO transfer, Shadell "Shotty" Millinghaus. Tech is expected to be a solid, mid-level Big 12 team this season.
The Red Raiders are 3-0. In their last game, they rallied from a 15 point first half deficit to beat a pesky Eastern Kentucky squad, 90-71. Auburn beat EKU by a similar 85-64 margin last week.
The teams seem fairly evenly matched. Tech is a savvy, upperclassman heavy team; Auburn is young and energetic. Both are well-coached. The outcome of this game will say a lot about both team's futures.
A win against Tech likely sets up a meeting with #17 Purdue. Purdue came into this season with high expectations, expected to finish second in a top-heavy Big Ten.
On paper, this is a bad matchup for Auburn because Purdue has been billed as the "most physical team in the country." Sophomore power forward Caleb Swanigan is 6'9", 250, has a 7'3" wingspan, a nice touch from 3, and averages 21 points and 13 boards per contest. Swanigan was the #9 recruit in his high school class and is living up to the hype.
Swanigan is joined on the block by junior center Isaac Haas (no relation), a Hokes Bluff, Alabama, native who runs 7'2", 290. Haas has been underwhelming on the glass for a man that size, grabbing only three boards per game but is paying his rent on the offensive end of the floor where he's pouring in 18 per game. Haas also has the reputation for getting into foul trouble.
The Boilermakers' only loss this year came in a squeaker against top 5, defending champs Villinova. But, Purdue needed a late, 20-0 run to knock off Georgia State this season. Georgia State actually out-rebounded Purdue by 9. The Tigers pulled away from the Panthers early so, we may have a chance but I really don't like a matchup against big, bruising interior players.
If Auburn loses to Texas Tech, the most likely second round matchup is the Aggies of Utah State. Utah State. Since 2011, the very name makes me shudder. They would have beaten us if not for a late rally and the intervention of certain X men.
The Aggies are a soft 3-0. They've played bums, but have beaten them badly.
Utah State has great guard play. They're led by seniors Jalen Moore and Shane Rector. Moore is a great scorer at wing. Rector runs the offense. The Aggies also have a high-powered freshman, Canadian guard, Koby McEwen who has scored in double-digits for each game this season. McEwen is a tall guard at 6'4".
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
Auburn fans, including me, may be too optimistic about this year's team. This tournament will be a great sorting week for our season. Each team will present us with unique challenges. I really want to get a shot at Purdue to see how Auburn responds against a physical team that will almost certainly have a good seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Auburn needs to leave Cancun with at least one win to keep hope alive that this is the year we'll make the NCAA Tournament. If Auburn leaves with two wins, it's time to overreact. If Auburn gets shutout, maybe we are who they think we are and not who we hoped we'd be.