Familiarity breeds defeat. Particularly in the SEC when good coaches are involved.
This is why SEC Tournament No. 1 seed Auburn played itself out of a NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed on Friday afternoon with a 67-62 loss to No. 8 seed Texas A&M. Without the SEC Tournament, Auburn would likely be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But now, No. 4 Auburn, 27-5 on the season with a 15-3 league record for the regular season championship, will likely not get a No. 1 seed on Sunday during the NCAA Selection Show (6 p.m. Eastern, CBS).
Auburn was the No. 1 team in the nation in late January through early February. The Tigers won 19 straight from November to February. They won the title of one of the nation’s best conferences – if not the best – outright. For the majority of this season, Auburn clearly was one of the best teams in the nation. But it is 5-4 since Feb. 8, and lately it just not looked like a No. 1 seed.
But once Auburn exits the SEC next week, it will play like a No. 1 seed again. Leaving the SEC will be like a vacation for Auburn. The Tigers will get away from the people who know them too well – the Aggies, the Volunteers, the Razorbacks and the Gators – and meet new people and mascots, which is what a trip is all about. The Tigers will find the NCAA field easier, perhaps all the way until the Elite Eight.
“Once you go around the league a few times, it’s a little easier to guard what we do,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Friday in a telling comment.
Auburn played its 19th game in its neighborhood Friday. That’s a lot of film on the team with the target on its back since January. But film is not as good an actual game.
Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams was just blown out at Auburn, 75-58, on Feb. 12, after trailing, 60-35, in the second half. And he learned from it.
Instead of letting Auburn shoot inside along with its usual 3-point frenzy, Williams basically installed Stephen King’s “Under The Dome” defense. Often, Auburn didn’t even try to go inside as if there was an invisible, impenetrable wall.
When they did, they were swarmed by Buzzing defenders as if in a horror movie.
“The assistants made some changes that I thought were paramount to giving us a chance,” said Williams, whose team blew a large lead before beating No. 9 seed Florida in overtime on Thursday. “Our guys did a really good job with a quick turnaround to reabsorb a lot of what our initial game plan was. We did have to flood the channel.”
Auburn made just 12 of 33 shots inside the arc as opposed to 24 of 43 in the first game. Texas A&M’s strategy was to give Auburn the 3-pointer and give nothing inside. Auburn hit just 9-of-36 from 3-point range for 25 percent. But that’s not why it lost. It hit only 3-of-25 from beyond the arc (12 percent) when it won the first game. Auburn lost because it had nothing to turn to inside this time when its outside game suffered.
“They collapsed inside,” said Auburn guard Wendell Green, who scored 10 points. “So, they made us shoot open shots. They gave us open shots. They were collapsing.”
It was like he was discussing a bad dream.
Look for future opponents to try the same thing, but trust me, Auburn will shoot better at what will seem like exotic locales in the NCAA Tournament, even though the first round NCAA Regional sites are in Buffalo, New York; Indianapolis, Indiana; Fort Worth, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Greenville, South Carolina; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and San Diego, California.
“Statistically speaking, we would have no chance if we allowed them to do what they wanted to do inside, so we had to defensively play inside-out,” Williams said. “We did a lot of different things to keep the ball out of the channel.”
Texas A&M also rebounded better this time as Auburn won that battle close, 43-42. Last time, Auburn won it, 52-45. There were fewer second-chance points for Auburn this time – 13 instead of 18.
Auburn will likely not see more physical play once it exits SEC country – maybe not until the Final Four, which it can still make.
“Texas A&M outplayed us. They were tougher than we were, and they made open shots,” Pearl said. “They played inspired. They played like their hair was on fire because they were trying to get into the NCAA Tournament.”
Auburn was playing to keep a No. 1 seed. That’s not nearly as desperate of a situation.
And Texas A&M now deserves an NCAA Tournament bid regardless of what happens Saturday in the semifinals against Arkansas (1 p.m., ESPN). The Aggies (22-11) do not need to make the SEC Tournament championship game on Sunday against Tennessee or Kentucky to reach the tournament. They should be in now. Yes, A&M was just 9-9 in the SEC, but it has won six straight and seven of its last eight. It’s much hotter than Auburn.
“I’ve just been doing this for 40 years,” Pearl said. “And I know what teams look like who deserve to be in, and that team does.”
He also knows his team is no longer a No. 1 seed and needs to light its hair on fire a few times if it is going to reach the Final Four.