(2017-18 RECORD: 25-6, 13-5 SEC) vs. (2017-18 RECORD: 18-14, 8-10 SEC)
|Fri, March 9||12 p.m.|
By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. – The SEC Tournament began Wednesday and for the first time in nine years, Auburn wasn’t playing on the first day. In fact, by winning the regular-season conference title, the Tigers earned a double-bye and won’t play their first game until Friday.
However, that regular-season title was just the first step. If Auburn wants to continue to gain respect nationally as a program, it has to win games in March.
“(Winning the SEC tournament) won’t be as big a deal as winning the regular season because the regular season is a grind and 18 games,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “But it’ll be a big deal because there will be more people watching than ever before, and that’s one of the things that I’m going to be talking to our team about. ‘Look, we worked so hard to give ourselves this opportunity, and yes, they still doubt us. And it’s March.’
“If we’re going to continue to change perceptions in that sense, this is the time of year that everyone is watching.”
Regardless of what happens over the next month, this Auburn team will forever have a legacy for battling adversity time and again and still winning the regular-season crown. It’s the first time the Tigers have accomplished that since the 1998-1999 campaign, and they’re about to hear their name called on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2003.
But how you start the season doesn’t always matter as much as how you finish.
“People might think that we got hot early in SEC play,” Auburn point guard Jared Harper said. “But now we have gotten to the point where everyone is 0-0, so it is like a whole new season to convince people and show people that we are here to stay and win the SEC tournament and that we are actually a legit team.”
In Friday’s quarterfinal matchup, the top-seeded Tigers will play ninth-seeded Alabama. The game is scheduled to tip off at noon CT from the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Rod Bramblett and Sonny Smith will have the radio call on 93.9 Tiger FM, online at AuburnTigers.com and on the TuneIn app. It will also be televised on SEC Network with Joe Tessitore, Sean Farnham and Laura Rutledge on the call.
Player to watch: Mustapha Heron
The sixth-leading scorer in the SEC this season, Mustapha Heron has paced the Tigers with 16.6 points per game, including 17.1 in conference play. The sophomore guard finished the regular season tied for fourth in the league with 16 games in double figures in SEC action, and he’s produced eight 20- plus scoring outputs so far this season.
All-time at the SEC Tournament
Auburn is 30-54 (.357) all-time in the SEC Tournament, including a 26-37 (.413) mark since the renewal of the tournament in 1979. The Tigers have won one SEC Tournament title (1985) when they became the first team to win four games in four days to win the championship. The feat was later matched by Arkansas (2000), Georgia (2008) and Mississip¬pi State (2009). The Tigers have twice been the SEC Tournament runner-up (1984, 2000).
2015 tourney run
In Bruce Pearl’s first season at Auburn in 2015, the 13th-seeded Tigers won three games in three days to advance to the SEC Tournament semifinals in Nashville’s Bridge¬stone Arena, defeating No. 12 seeded Mis¬sissippi State in the first round, No. 5 seeded Texas A&M in the second round and No. 4 seeded LSU in overtime in the quarterfinals. Auburn eventually fell to No. 1 ranked and then-undefeated Kentucky in the semifinals.
Junior Bryce Brown became the 36th player in program history to reach 1,000 career points after scoring 29 points in the regular-season finale against South Carolina. Heron can join the club, possibly this weekend, as he is just 35 points away from reaching 1,000. He could become the fifth Auburn player to score 1,000 points in their first two seasons.
The guard trio of Heron (16.6), Brown (16.4) and Harper (13.9) are all averaging over 13 points per game this season. Auburn is the only team in the league to have three players rank in the top 20 in the SEC in scoring (Heron, sixth; Brown, eigth; Harper, 17th).
Knocking down the freebies
Auburn is 137-of-165 from the free-throw line over their last six games, good for an 83.0 percentage and an average of 22.8 made free throws over that span. For the year, the Tigers have now made 605 free throws, which puts them one behind the 2014-15 team for the school’s single-season record for most free throws made in a season.
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @greg_ostendorf