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Auburn, Houston for a spot in the Sweet 16

Photo by Adam Sparks/OA News

It’s been an exhausted talking point by now. This year’s team and season have been rather different from the successes of the prior.

A wire to wire conference champion and a team that couldn’t seem to catch a break all season long. Two first round generational talents and a team comprised of transfers and program-developed stars.

And yet, despite all the unfortunate turns and heartbreaks that have held this team back from so much more, the Tigers are just 40 minutes away from surpassing the postseason success of the team they’ve been compared to from the beginning.

Auburn has a date with the one-seed Houston Cougars in Birmingham for a spot in the Sweet 16. And as Bruce Pearl always says, it’s going to take “special”.

“It is an opportunity to play maybe the best team in the country,” Pearl said. “Certainly a No. 1 seed. We are going to need to be on our game on both ends of the floor, but it is an opportunity for us to make history. It is going to take something real special.”

The Cougars have been one of the best all season long in the sport. Houston ranks first in the latest NCAA NET rankings, efficiency rankings and ESPN BPI. Entering the big dance, the Cougars led the nation in field-goal percentage defense (36.4) and scoring margin (+18.5) and ranked second in scoring defense (56.5) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (27.8). They were also among the Top 10 in rebounding margin (+7.3, 8th) and turnover margin (+4.3, 10th).

“Can we continue to play that well? I just think the biggest thing is Houston's physicality, their ability to go get the ball, their length and their athleticism. That will remind my Auburn team of the most athletic, physical, tough teams in the SEC that we have had our hands full with,” Pearl said.

But, Houston’s two star’s health could be a major factor in this win or go home matchup. Marcus Sasser has battled a groin injury that held him out of their conference tournament championship game loss to familiar Auburn opponent, Memphis and limited Sasser to just five points in 14 minutes of play in the first round matchup with Northern Kentucky.

Jamal Shead has also been dealing with a knee injury. Although Shead was still able to play 36 minutes in the first round game, not being 100% along with Sasser’s absence led to 6-6 assist to turnover ratio in a 13 point performance.

As for their status entering the second round showdown in Birmingham:

“I’m 100 percent playing tomorrow,” Sasser said.

Shead and head coach Kelvin Sampson echoed Sasser’s statement.

Photo by Adam Sparks/OA News

As for the Tigers, the first round win, which makes 11 straight for the program, was built on a total team effort. Six Tigers logged double digit performances, two had double-doubles, and only two played over 30 minutes in the game. An unlikely star even formed in Tre Donaldson, who went 3-3 from deep with 11 points.

While Auburn’s best still led the way with Johni Broome’s 19 point, 12 rebound, and 5 block performance, the first for an SEC player since NBA star Anthony Davis, and Wendell Green Jr.’s 15 points and perfect 8-8 from the charity stripe, the Tiger’s might have found the perfect formula to excel in March.

It’s always an uphill battle when facing a one seed but, it seems as though this team that has faced so much in this grueling SEC season has started to lean on a phrase we’ve heard before.

Shades of the line that dominated the historic 2019 Final Four run, “Why Not Us?”

The Tigers and Cougars will tipoff in Birmingham at the BJCC Legacy Arena at 6:10 CT with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. The matchup will be nationally televised by TBS and will be called by Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, Grant Hill, and Tracy Wolfson.

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