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Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl knows that Jacksonville State is not in Florida.
That’s Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, Florida, where NBA great Artis Gilmore went to school and led the Dolphins to the Final Four in 1970 before losing the national title to UCLA.
Jacksonville State is located in Jacksonville, Alabama – two hours north of Auburn and an hour north of Ricky Bobby and the Talladega Superspeedway. The No. 15 seed Gamecocks (21-10) play No. 2 seed Auburn (27-5) in the NCAA Tournament on Friday in Greenville, South Carolina, at 12:40 p.m. on TruTV.
Auburn last played Jacksonville State, which has only been playing basketball since 1995, on Nov. 19, 2013, winning 78-54 to go to 12-0 in the series. Jacksonville State won the regular season title of the Atlantic Sun Conference (ASUN), which includes Jacksonville University by the way, with a 13-3 record.
Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky won the ASUN Tournament last week with a 77-72 victory over Jacksonville University – there’s that school again. In a normal year, that would have given Bellarmine the automatic NCAA Tournament bid. But Bellarmine is still transitioning into Division I from Division II and is not eligible yet for the NCAA Tournament, so Jacksonville State got the bid because of that regular season title. This may tell you something about the quality of the ASUN – a pledge won the freakin’ tournament.
“I don’t know a ton about Jacksonville State,” Pearl said diplomatically, then quickly and skillfully pivoted to another subject. “But I know their coach very well.”
Jacksonville State is one of the worst teams in the NCAA Tournament, based on its No. 143 ranking in the nation by the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) that is used to pick the NCAA Tournament field. Auburn is No. 11 after losing its first game in the SEC Tournament to Texas A&M on Friday.
Jacksonville State’s coach is Ray Harper, who was Kentucky Wesleyan’s coach in Owensboro from 1996-2005. Pearl was Southern Indiana’s coach in Evansville from 1992-2001. Owensboro is 45 minutes from Evansville.
“We were big rivals – recruiting rivals,” Pearl said. And they also played.
“They were our arch enemy, not just our rival,” Pearl said. “It was very akin to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry. It was very heated at times.”
So, it’s a good thing this Iron Bowl basketball pairing will be played at 13,951-capacity Bon Secours Wellness Arena, because that sounds like a hospital. The French-to-English translation of bon secours is “good help.”
Jacksonville State may need some help. It is a 17.5-point underdog by FanDuel, but Pearl is already spinning that.
“So, I would venture to say that there’s probably not a team in the country that Jacksonville State or Ray Harper would rather play than Bruce Pearl and Auburn,” Pearl said. “I’m just telling you.”
Jacksonville State is in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time. It lost to Louisville, 78-63, in the first round in 2017. Auburn, which reached the Final Four in 2019, is in the NCAA Tournament for the 11th time.
“We’re very excited about going to Greenville,” Pearl said of a town just a four-hour drive from Auburn. “The road to the Final Four for Auburn has been through San Diego and Utah and Kansas City and Minneapolis since I’ve been here.”
The Auburn-Jacksonville State winner plays on Sunday in Greenville against the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 7 seed USC (26-7) and No. 10 seed Miami (23-10). Those two fans bases have a much longer trip.
“I think the committee recognized the fact that our fans haven’t been able to travel close to home to see us play,” Pearl said. “This is going to give our fans a chance to help us make history in Greenville, South Carolina this weekend.”
SEC SCHEDULE IN NCAA TOURNAMENT (All times eastern):
No. 3 seed Tennessee (26-7) vs. No. 14 Longwood (26-6), Indianapolis, Indiana, 2:45 p.m., CBS
No. 2 Kentucky (26-7) vs. No. 15 Saint Peter’s (19-11), Indianapolis, 7:10 p.m., CBS
No. 4 Arkansas (25-8) vs. No. 13 Vermont (28-5), Buffalo, N.Y., 9:20 p.m., TNT
No. 2 Auburn (27-5) vs. No. 15 Jacksonville State (21-10), Greenville, S.C., 12:40 p.m., TruTV
No. 6 Alabama (19-13) vs. Rutgers/Notre Dame winner*, San Diego, California, 4:15 p.m., TNT
*(Rutgers, 18-13, vs. Notre Dame, 22-10, Dayton, Ohio, 9:10 p.m. Wednesday, TruTV)
No. 6 LSU (22-11) vs. No. 11 Iowa State (20-12), Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 7:20 p.m., TBS
SEC SCHEDULE IN NIT
Belmont (25-7) at No. 4 seed Vanderbilt (17-16), 7 p.m., ESPN2
Alcorn State (17-16) at No. 1 Texas A&M (23-12), 9 p.m., ESPN2
No. 3 Mississippi State (18-15) at Virginia (19-13), 7 p.m., ESPN2
Iona (25-7) at No. 3 Florida (19-13), 9 p.m., ESPN2