It really happened, Auburn basketball fans.
You didn’t suddenly wake up Sunday from a four-month fever dream to find your Tigers 7-4 in nonconference play as Christmas beckoned. You weren’t yanked out of a convincing virtual-reality experiment to discover Bruce Pearl’s team was actually 11th in the SEC and praying for an NIT bid. You weren’t sucked through an interdimensional portal back into your original reality as TBS’s selection show started, one where Auburn’s name was never mentioned.
No, Selection Sunday came and went without any sci-fi rug-pulling. So there were your Auburn Tigers: on your TV screen, in the bracket for the first time since 2003, really and truly a 4-seed in the Midwest region facing 13th-seeded College of Charleston.
In some ways, it didn’t matter at all how the selection committee treated Auburn. When you’ve waited 15 years just to make the bracket, already hung a championship banner, and are now firmly in the all-gravy portion of the season, does drawing a 4-seed vs. a 5-seed make that much difference?
“Yes and no” would be the answer here. No, in the sense that with the tournament drought ended and the program’s third-ever SEC title claimed, the season’s most important goals have already been achieved (and then some). But yes, in the sense that when you’re a program whose entire seeding history can fit in one tweet …
Auburn fit its entire tournament history on a quarter page of its media guide. Just the second time in nine appearances Tigers have a top-four seed:
— David Ching (@davidching77) March 11, 2018
… any NCAA Tournament victory is a precious, precious thing.
So Auburn should be thankful the committee has given the Tigers as favorable an opportunity for one or even two of those victories as could be expected. Yes, the committee shipped Auburn west to San Diego, but once the two Nashville slots for protected seeds were gone — and they were gone before the committee even moved past the 2-seed line — no choice of venue could be all that friendly.
And in several other ways, the committee gave Auburn exactly what it would want:
It handed Auburn a 4 seed. Yes, the majority of bracketologists expected Auburn to land on the 4 line, and in the end the committee had the Tigers much closer to the 3 seeds than the 5s. But it didn’t have to be that way. Wichita State, Arizona, Kentucky and West Virginia all boasted at least five more wins than Auburn’s nine across team sheet Quadrants 1 and 2, as well as a better winning percentage in those games. It’s not by accident that projections from outlets as prominent as CBS Sports and FOX Sports named Auburn a 5 seed.
It’s also not by accident that the Tigers received a 4 seed instead, of course; between their seven Quadrant 1 wins, SEC title, and zero losses, Auburn had a compelling argument for the seed it was awarded. But there’s never any guarantee the committee had to listen to it — and if the Tigers had been bumped down a peg, the bracket’s four challenging 12 seeds* would make the consequences substantial.
It handed Auburn — on paper — a less threatening opponent. Let it be written across the sky, blared with a bullhorn, carved into the side of mountains: the Charleston Cougars are an excellent team with an excellent shot of pulling the upset Friday. They’re more experienced than Auburn, have a handful of matchup advantages, and in overcoming a 17-point second-half deficit in the Colonial championship game showed they won’t be rattled by the pressure of the NCAAs.
But facts are facts: the CAA champs are the bracket’s weakest 13 seed according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the second-weakest according to the Sagarin predictor ratings, and in fact rank below multiple 14 seeds by both measures. That Auburn remains a double-digit favorite over the Cougars despite its late-season woes is an indication that bookmakers aren’t high on Charleston’s raw strength.
Beating the Cougars won’t be easy. But it still might be less difficult than some other opponents Auburn could have drawn.
It handed Auburn an extra day of rest. Even with the six days between its final regular-season game and its SEC Tournament flameout against Alabama, the Tigers looked low on energy in their non-response to the Tide’s second-half surge. Playing on Friday gives Auburn another day to recharge their legs, another day for Bryce Brown’s nagging injuries to recover, another day to rediscover the February form that made them one of the nation’s best basketball teams.
As a bonus, the Tigers will even tip off at 7:27 p.m. ET — or at virtually the exact same time Auburn’s body clocks will be accustomed to tipping off, despite the West Coast venue (though the same is true for Charleston, of course).
It handed Auburn as manageable a potential Round of 32 game as possible. If Auburn gets past the Cougars — if if if if if if — it will face either Clemson or New Mexico State, one of the most intriguing matchups in the entire Round of 64. Brad Brownell’s Tigers are KenPom’s lowest-ranked 5 seed, have won only three of their last eight games, and haven’t defeated a KenPom top-70 opponent away from home since December. The Aggies, meanwhile, beat Miami (Fla.) in nonconference play and stormed through the WAC en route to a second straight NCAA berth.
Put those facts together, and you get only a 5-point spread between the teams — the tightest of any 5-12 matchup, and one that suggests Auburn is more likely than any other 4-seed to face a 12 in the Round of 32. And if Clemson survives, facing the Tigers (as opposed to West Virginia, Ohio State or even underseeded and white-hot Houston) is the most Auburn could ask for.
That Selection Sunday 2018 happened at all is something Auburn fans will remember forever. That it gave the Tigers a tremendous opportunity to make a historic season that much more historic means it might be remembered even more fondly than it already will be.
*Or more accurately three, in Auburn’s case, since the Tigers couldn’t be paired with regular-season opponent Murray State. But the point stands.