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Auburn’s Road to the Final Four - Midwest Region, Pt. 2

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

Yesterday, we looked at the first weekend’s matchups as Auburn gets underway in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003, thus jinxing any good mojo that the Tigers may have as they head into the first game tomorrow night.

Either way, we’re going to enjoy the leadup to the Tournament as much as possible, and consider any and all possibilities of Auburn making a deep run. With yesterday’s article giving you the goods on what the Tigers are up against on the first weekend, let’s assume they make it through to the Sweet Sixteen and a full second weekend of NCAA Tournament action.

SWEET SIXTEEN - Auburn vs Kansas/Penn/Seton Hall/NC State

Let’s be real. If Auburn gets to the Sweet Sixteen and faces Penn, the Tigers will NOT be the story that everyone’s talking about. We can go ahead and assume that Kansas will take care of the Quakers in the first round and move on to play the winner of the 8-9 game between Seton Hall and NC State.

Again, we’ll begin with the assumption that the Jayhawks will make it to the second weekend with a win in the Round of 32. 1-seeds make the Sweet 16 86% of the time, so it’s a fairly safe bet that Seton Hall and NC State will be watching from home by that point.

So, that means that Auburn will get a chance to take on the top seed in the Midwest Region! It’ll certainly be a fun buildup with the Tigers looking toward a true Blue Blood in the visitors from Lawrence. But what does KU bring to the table?

One, they’re obviously among the most talented teams in the country -- that’s a given in any year. They’ve won fourteen straight Big 12 regular season championships, and won the Big 12 Tournament this season as well. This season the Jayhawks aren’t nearly as deep as they’ve been in years past, but you’re still dealing with the best team out of one of the best conferences.

KU’s led by Devonte Graham, their senior leader and point guard, who averages 17.5 ppg and 7.5 assists per game. Graham has failed to score in double digits only once since the start of conference play, and that came in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge against Teas A&M. He’ll distribute the ball all over the place, but his options are limited.

Aside from Graham, Kansas will have Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman patrolling the wings, and they combine for over 28 ppg, and both shoot better than 40% from three-point range. Kansas is definitely a guard-oriented team this season, and that trio is one of the best in the country.

Inside is where it gets a bit iffy, and where KU may have its Death Star exhaust port. It all depends on the health and availability of Udoka Azubuike. This is a mammoth 7’0, 280 lb Nigerian that Auburn quite honestly wouldn’t have an answer for. He’s averaged 13.7 ppg and 7.1 rpg, but he’s injury prone. He missed most of last year with a season-ending affliction, and he missed the Big 12 Tournament with a sprained ankle. Now, he should have had time to heal, but lingering effects could hamper him moving forward.

Aside from that, Azubuike’s had a tendency to disappear at times this season. When Kansas beat Texas in the final week of the season, he went 10-11 for 20 points. In the season finale at Oklahoma State, he scored just eight points and the Jayhawks got blasted in Stillwater. Furthermore, he’s just a 42% free throw shooter. He’s a load, but he’s not invincible. He doesn’t quite yet know how to take over a game, and that would be Auburn’s hope.

If the Tigers were to beat Kansas to advance to the Elite Eight, they’d need for Azubuike to disappear, and for the guard matchup of Harper/Brown/Heron to be greater than that of Graham/Newman/Mykhailiuk. Certainly not out of the question.

But what if it’s not Kansas that Auburn faces in the Sweet Sixteen?

Let’s look at Seton Hall and NC State.

First off, the Pirates won the Big East Tournament a couple seasons ago, and were ranked in the top twenty in mid-January this year before tumbling out of the polls. The Hall lost three of four around that time to Marquette, Creighton, and Xavier, then lost four straight right after that to Villanova, Marquette, Georgetown, and Xavier.

Now, that’s a tough schedule for sure, since they had two 1-seeds in their conference, but they didn’t really show any fight in those defeats. This is another team with a great front five, and then zero depth behind them. The Pirates top four starters combine for about 62 ppg, but after them there’s nobody that averages more than five points per game.

As for NC State, the Wolfpack has excited fans under first-year coach Kevin Keats, but they’ve been wildly inconsistent. Check it out:

GREAT WINS: vs #2 Arizona, vs #2 Duke, vs #19 Clemson, vs #10 North Carolina, vs #25 Florida State

HEAD-SCRATCHING LOSSES: vs UNC-Greensboro, vs Notre Dame ( by 30 points without Bonzie Colson), vs Georgia Tech, vs Boston College

The Wolfpack just can’t put it together for more than a game at a time, but they’re certainly capable of pulling an upset if they were to meet Kansas in the second round.

We’re going to assume that Auburn will face the Jayhawks, and that our backcourt plays better than theirs, springing the Tigers to the upset win and the berth in the Elite Eight.

ELITE EIGHT - Auburn vs Duke/Michigan State/TCU/Rhode Island/Oklahoma

I know we cut out half the teams in the bottom portion of the Midwest Region, and if Arizona State, Syracuse, Bucknell, or Iona make the Elite Eight, then we’ll write a full article praising their tenacity. As it stands, let’s focus on the main possibilities.

2-seed Duke is an obvious pick, as the Blue Devils have one of the future top picks in the draft in Marvin Bagley, and a bootylicious typical Duke guard in Grayson Allen.

Duke’s a team that can win the national championship, but they’ve been an early exit more often than not lately:

  • 2017 (2-seed) - L vs 7-seed South Carolina (2nd Round)
  • 2016 (4-seed) - L vs 5-seed Oregon (Sweet 16)
  • 2014 (3-seed) - L vs 14-seed Mercer (1st Round)
  • 2012 (2-seed) - L vs 15-seed Lehigh (1st Round)

That said, Marvin Bagley would have a field day with Auburn’s interior, and we’d have a very tough time containing him to anything less than 30 points. Again, it would have to be our hope that our backcourt played better than theirs did. Get Grayson Allen frustrated, and hope that the freshmen are thinking more about their NBA futures than a title, and we may have the recipe.

As an even tougher out, 3-seed Michigan State has a decidedly deep roster and spent time atop the rankings earlier this year, and only fell out of the top five once. Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, and Huntsville’s own Josh Langford form a really good starting five and should be a popular pick to make the Final Four. In their last two losses (both to Michigan), they either turned the ball over or allowed the Wolverines to bomb away from downtown. Auburn is capable of doing both to the opposition.

As for TCU, I believe the Horned Frogs are getting the benefit of being a member of the Big 12. They’re just 21-11, and did the whole “beat who you should, lost to who you should” thing. They even lost to Vanderbilt, so I think a 6-seed might actually be generous. Auburn beat them last year, and we’re better this season.

Below that, there’s Rhode Island. The Rams were ranked for much of the season out of the A-10, and ended up losing to Davidson in the title game. Their starting lineup’s made of four seniors and a sophomore, and it’s well-rounded in that they don’t depend too much on any one player. Last year, Duke lost to a physical veteran team in South Carolina, and don’t be surprised if they face off against the Rams and have a similar situation.

Then there’s Oklahoma. The Sooners were everyone’s media darling up until the middle of the January when they were ranked 4th in the country. Then the backslide started. From then, they’ve lost eleven of fifteen games and their star Trae Young hasn’t been anywhere near as magnificent as he was to begin the season. The bracket set up so that Young could face off against Duke, but I don’t think the Sooners have enough to get through Rhode Island anyway.

Alright, there’s your look at the second weekend, should Auburn make it through. We’ll finish it up tomorrow with a look at the last weekend of the Tournament and our dream scenarios if the Tigers can string together even more victories. War Eagle!