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Auburn’s Road to the Final Four - Midwest Region, Pt. 1

Not that we’re getting ahead of ourselves or anything.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Auburn John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

DISCLAIMER: I’M SURE WE’RE JINXING THE HELL OUT OF THIS TOURNAMENT RUN BY EVEN ENTERTAINING SUCH A THOUGHT, BUT WE’RE DOING IT ANYWAY. DEAL WITH IT.

Two days from now, Auburn’s going to play in its first NCAA Tournament game since March 28, 2003, when the Tigers lost to the eventual national champion Syracuse. Auburn’s earned the 4-seed out of the Midwest Region, and actually doesn’t have the worst draw in the world when you think about it. At the Reverse Tiger Walk yesterday, Bruce Pearl let everyone know that the road may be tough, but it’s not especially long.

When you put it that way, Coach, it doesn’t seem so bad. We are just two wins away from the Sweet 16. After that, we’re just two more wins away from the Final Four. Auburn won fourteen straight games earlier this year, and then won five straight in conference play later on in the season. Winning four games in a row doesn’t seem to be all that difficult, and here’s how Auburn will have to do it.

ROUND OF 64 - Auburn vs Charleston

We already took an early look at the Cougars, who earned the 13-seed with their win in the CAA Tournament. They’re not going to be an easy out at all, with three guys that can absolutely light it up and a penchant for keeping the ball safely in their own hands. The Cougs rank 4th in the country in turnovers (they’re behind only Virginia, Davidson, and Florida in that category), and so Auburn will likely need to rely on taking rebounds quickly back down the floor to find that run-and-gun style that they’ve used to great advantage this season. Charleston’s not going to give Auburn many chances for steals, and so the Tigers will have to hope that they can get some missed shots.

Additionally, the Cougars don’t foul all that much, and so Auburn likely won’t get many chances at the free throw line. That’s been a huge part of the Tigers’ success this year, and they’ll have to get Charleston doing something that no one else has all season long if they want to continue that trend.

Altogether, it won’t be an easy draw to open things up, and with the way that Auburn’s been playing for the most part down the stretch run of the season, we’ll need to see if they can find that magic that propelled them to the SEC regular season championship.

ROUND OF 32 - Auburn vs Clemson/New Mexico State

Clemson and New Mexico State should play one of the more interesting games of the first round, and there have been a ton of people already predicting the 12 over 5 upset (including Charles Barkley).

Clemson was one of the better teams in the ACC for the better part of the year, until losing four of their final six games down the stretch (due in large part to the absence of Donte Grantham, who tore his ACL in late January). Still, they’ve got four other guys that average double figures in terms of scoring, including Marcquise Reed and Gabe DeVoe, who combine to score 29 points per game.

They don’t have a ton of size, though, but like Charleston, they don’t turn the ball over and they don’t foul. Brad Brownell’s got a disciplined team and he’s got some upperclassmen that have finally been able to shrug off the basketball version of Clemsoning and make it back to the Tournament for the first time since 2011.

On the other side of the matchup, it’s New Mexico State. If you recall, they got a little attention a couple years ago when they made the Big Dance on the large back of Sim Bhullar.

This year marks the Aggie’s seventh Tournament appearance in the last decade, showing that whatever they’re doing in Las Cruces is working.

There’s a reason that New Mexico State is a trendy upset pick (and even a Sweet 16 pick in many brackets) — they’re one of the best defensive teams in the country. The Aggies rank fifth in the nation - FIFTH - in field goal percentage defense. Nobody can make shots against this team, and the only squads better include Virginia (1-seed), Michigan State (2-seed), and Cincinnati (2-seed).

NMSU won the WAC with a 28-5 record that includes a win over Miami a couple days before Christmas. They don’t have any other good wins aside from that, but the fact is that they’re going to be a tough out since they know how to win and won’t be intimidated by the moment, having been to the Tournament so often recently.

If Auburn ends up playing the Aggies, they’ll have the size advantage. NMSU’s startes range from 5’9 to 6’8, but it’s 6’5 forward Jemerrio Jones that averages a double-double and grabs more than thirteen rebounds per game. Couple that with Zach Lofton’s 19.7 ppg and you’ve got a dangerous combination.

Should the Tigers win these two games, they’ll be into the Sweet 16, and we’ll take a look at their possible second weekend matchups tomorrow. Until then, War Eagle!