Auburn advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years as the No. 5 seed Tigers blitzed Kansas for an 89-75 victory on Saturday night in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region.
Jumping out to a 51-25 halftime advantage behind 9-for-17 three-point shooting in the first half, Auburn seemingly broke the will of the No. 4 seed Jayhawks before the second half even began. After nearly collapsing and blowing a big lead on Thursday in a harrowing one-point win over No. 12 seed New Mexico State, the Tigers made sure not to take their foot off the gas in the second half on Saturday.
One of the tournament’s hottest teams, Auburn (28-9) extended its winning streak to 10 games with a dominant effort on both ends of the floor. Known for its perimeter shooting prowess (13-for-30 on Saturday) and national-best turnover percentage on defense (15 Kansas turnovers), Auburn played to its strengths to cruise into the tournament’s second weekend.
Senior guard Bryce Brown had 17 first-half points as he finished with 25 total to lead the Tigers as he was a red-hot 7-for-11 from three-point territory. Brown also had plenty of help as lead guard Jared Harper (18 points), wing Chuma Okeke (12 points) and forward Anfernee McLemore (10 points) also finished in double-figures.
Following last season’s co-SEC regular-season title, the Tigers were blown out by Clemson in the Round of 32 to stop a promising season short. Things didn’t appear particularly promising at times this season as Auburn went from top-ten team to unranked thanks to a sluggish 2-4 start in the SEC.
But head coach Bruce Pearl and the Tigers have turned things around as a dangerous rotation of veteran players have figured things out during the final weeks of the season. With Auburn firmly entrenched in the middle of the FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal with former assistant coach Chuck Person pleading guilty earlier this month, the Tigers were able to stay focused and reach a level the program has seldom seen.
For Pearl to take a football school into the Sweet 16 shows how far Auburn has come as a basketball program during his five seasons as head coach. One of college basketball’s more underappreciated coaches, Pearl can be associated first-and-foremost for his loud-and-brash approach to generating publicity and gaining the attention of elite recruits. Never afraid of a publicity stunt, the ever-quotable Pearl is a regular when it comes to memorable sound bites and quirky gimmicks. As a coach, he’s now taken three different programs to the Sweet 16 — including a Horizon League team (Milwaukee) and a historically-weak SEC program that doesn’t have consistent basketball success.
Auburn could very well continue to advance this March as they try to make the Elite Eight for only the second time in program history (1986). If Auburn shoots like this, while continuing to force turnovers, they’re going to be a nightmare for any team to play.
The Tigers move on to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003 as this is only the fifth Sweet 16 appearance in program history. The Tigers await the winner of No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 9 seed Washington as they advance to Friday’s Midwest Regional semifinal in Kansas City.
Kansas (26-10) came out flat and never recovered after one of the first round’s most impressive wins over No. 13 seed Northeastern on Thursday. All-American forward Dedric Lawson had another double-double to close a memorable season as he finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds — notching the NCAA tournament’s first back-to-back 25-and-10 games since Blake Griffin did it for Oklahoma. Freshman guards Quentin Grimes (15 points) and Devon Dotson (13 points) along with freshman big man David McCormack (11 points) also finished in double-figures for the Jayhawks. A lackluster defensive effort and cold perimeter shooting hurt Kansas’ ability to rally in the second half as they were 6-for-19 (31 percent) from three-point range on the night.
After many predicted a repeat Final Four appearance for Kansas this preseason following last season’s deep tournament run, things didn’t go according to plan thanks to injuries and other issues. The loss of big man Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending injury was a devastating blow to the Jayhawks’ early hopes as he only played in nine games. Senior Lagerald Vick also left the team in early February and never returned. Without its starting center and best perimeter shooter, Kansas lost the Big 12 regular-season crown for the first time in 14 years as its season officially ends with a second-round exit.
The highly-touted freshman class also didn’t perform up to expectations. Although Dotson was a double-figure scorer and tough defender, Grimes, the team’s most celebrated incoming freshman, failed to meet lofty preseason standards. McCormack also wasn’t ready to replace Azubuike in the middle. Kansas even had to burn the redshirt of promising guard Ochai Agbaji to infuse more athleticism into the Jayhawk backcourt. Transfer rotation players like Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson were inconsistent after the former top-100 recruits sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Entering into a fascinating offseason, for the first time in a long time, Kansas might have more questions than answers. The Jayhawks haven’t slipped too far — the program still has made a national-best 30 straight NCAA tournament appearances. Bill Self’s program is still a perennial top-25 program. A No. 4 seed during a season with so many issues is nothing to scoff at. College basketball’s best home-court advantage isn’t going away.
But the end of the Big 12 title streak means the program has to find a bit of a new identity heading into next season. Kansas will still be one of the Big 12’s hunted programs. The Jayhawks also have to prove they can win away from home. A number of returning players need to get better during the offseason — particularly if Dedric Lawson turns pro. And Kansas doesn’t have a five-star, blue-chip recruit at the current moment to rely on as recruiting has perhaps been slowed by Self’s alleged involvement the FBI’s corruption case.
The future of Self, and Kansas basketball in general, will be one of the subplots to watch this offseason as one of college basketball’s blueblood programs faces a fascinating and uncertain next few months.