Auburn, Ala.--Auburn received its first postseason basketball tournament bid under Coach Jeff Lebo as the Tigers picked up an invitation to play in the National Invitational Tournament.
The Tigers, who are one of the four No. 1 seeds, will take on UT-Martin from the Ohio Valley Conference in the opening round. The game will tipoff at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.
If the Tigers win that game, they will play the winner of No. 4 seed Tulsa vs. No. 5 seed Northwestern.
Times have not been set for the second round games, which will be played between March 19th-23rd. The third round games, also on campus sites, will be played March 24-25th.
If the Tigers win, as the number one seed they will have the chance to play the first three rounds at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum before going to Madison Square Garden in New York City for the semi-finals of the tournament.
The semi-finals will be held March 30th in New York City and the finals will also be in New York on April 2nd.
The other teams in Auburn's eight-team portion of the bracket are Baylor, Georgetown, Virginia Tech and Duquesne.
UT-Martin, which has a 22-9 record, earned an automatic bid into the NIT by being the OVC regular season champs. The Skyhawks feature all-conference senior guard Lester Hudson, who averaged 38 points per game in the OVC tournament. Lebo notes that Hudson is one of the top guards in the country. “He is really good,” the coach says.
Hudson averaged 27.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game for the season and made 35.5 percent of his 282 three-point attempts.
The Tigers and Skyhawks have one common opponent this season. Auburn split its two games vs. Tennessee and UT-Martin lost to the Vols 91-64 on Nov. 18th in Knoxville.
“We are disappointed we are not playing in the NCAA, but these kids have been unbelievable,” Lebo says. “The 22 wins this year is the third most in school history. Eleven wins in the SEC, including one in the tournament with a bye in there...we have had a very successful year.
“I am very happy for the kids, proud for kids,” the coach says. “It has been a heck of a month and a half ride. It really has been. It has been a lot of fun.”
After the disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament, it is not unusual for teams in that situation to play unemotionally and be knocked out early from the NIT field, which is 32 teams this season.
“We will talk about it,” Lebo says. “The kids haven’t played in postseason since I have been here so these kids haven’t had a chance. Hopefully, they will be excited to play. There are lot of teams, a ton of teams, that aren’t playing right now. We will try as coaches to get it out of their system as quickly as we can.”
Lebo says he isn’t sure why the Tigers were left out of the field, but he notes with the SEC getting just three teams in the field, and none with good seeds, the league’s RPI was probably a factor in AU not making the NCAA field.
“It hurt the league (SEC) when you don’t win games early,” Lebo points out. “You can’t move your league RPI in January. If your league starts out in fifth or sixth in the RPI when you get into league you can’t move it. You have got to really have success from your league early. Our (SEC) RPI was a little bit too high. Maybe one or two more wins would have certainly made a big difference.”
Senior Rasheem Barrett says that “every kid growing up wants to play in the NCAA Tournament,” but says that personally he is going to be excited about playing in the NIT.
“Me myself--I am not sure about my teammates--I quickly got over it,” Barrett says. “I mean, I have been here for four years and haven’t had any postseason play.”
Rasheem Barrett and his senior teammates still have more basketball to play for Auburn.
“I am sure a couple of guys are hurt, especially feelings-wise, emotionally,” Barrett says. “We practiced hard, we played our hardest and gave it our all this season. What were we--22 and 11 and in the SEC won 10 games? I think in the SEC that says enough. Obviously, the people making the decision didn’t think that. My teammates will probably be sad about it, but I will try to talk to them and let them know they still have to come in tomorrow and practice as hard as we can.
“Just because you don’t make the NCAA, you still don’t look down at the NIT,” Barrett says. “You are still fighting to win a championship in some form or fashion.”
Commenting on whether or not the Tigers will use the NIT to make a statement that they should have been in the NCAA field, Barrett says, “It would be really nice to say, ‘Hey, I told you so. We were a pretty good team.’ All jokes aside, we are not going to the tournament to tell people that ‘hey, we were this or we were that.’ We just want a chance to play for a championship. I believe our season, our record and what we have done have proved that we are team that is able to do that.”
Auburn’s last appearance in the NIT was 2001. The Tigers edged Miami 60-58 at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum and were eliminated in round two, falling 79-61 at Purdue.
Auburn’s first NIT appearance was in 1993 with the Tigers losing at Clemson, 84-72. That Clemson team was coached by Cliff Ellis, who would later coach at Auburn.
In 1995 the Tigers lost their opening round NIT game to visiting Marquette 68-61.
In 1996 the Tigers lost in overtime to Tulane, falling 87-73 at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.
The Tigers defeated Southern Miss 77-62 at home in 1998 before falling 75-60 in overtime at Marquette.
Auburn’s last postseason invitation was the 2003 NCAA Tournament and the Tigers defeated St. Joseph’s and Wake Forest before losing 79-78 to eventual national champion Syracuse in the Sweet 16.
"We are happy to be playing right now," Lebo said. *It is a good reward for our kids to be playing at this time of the year. We are playing UT-Martin, a team from the OVC, and I certainly know about the OVC after coaching in that league." Lebo was head coach at Tennessee Tech.
The Tigers won their 22nd game on Friday night vs. Florida in the SEC Tournament taking a 61-58 vs. Florida in the quarter-finals. The Tigers fell to Tennessee 94-85 in the semi-finals on Saturday. Tennessee was upset in the championship game on Sunday by Mississippi State.
Tickets go on sale Monday at auburntigers.com and at the Auburn Athletic Department Ticket office at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. Tickets are $15 for reserved seats in sections 29-33 in the lower levels and $10 general admission elsewhere in Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. Tickets are $5 for college students and youth 18 and under.
1 Auburn vs. 8 UT-Martin Wed. 7 p.m.
4 Tulsa vs. 5 Northwestern
3 Baylor vs. 6 Georgetown
2 Virginia Tech vs. 7 Duquesne
San Diego State Bracket
1 San Diego State vs. 8 Weber State
4 Kansas State vs. 5 Illinois State
3 South Carolina vs. 6 Davidson
2 St. Mary’s vs. 7 Washington State
1 Creighton vs. 8 Bowling Green
4 Kentucky vs. 5 UNLV
3 New Mexico vs. 6 Nebraska
2 Notre Dame vs. 7 UAB
1 Florida vs. 8 Jacksonville
4 Miami vs. 5 Providence
3 Niagara vs. 6 Rhode Island
2 Penn State vs. 7 George Mason
First Round Matchups
Tuesday, March 17
Davidson (26-7) at South Carolina (21-9), 6 p.m.
Rhode Island (22-10) at Niagara (26-8), 6 p.m.
George Mason (22-10) at Penn State (22-11), 7 p.m.
UAB (22-11) at Notre Dame (18-14), 8 p.m.
UNLV (21-10) at Kentucky (20-12), 8:30 p.m.
Weber State (21-9) at San Diego State (23-9), 9 p.m.
Nebraska (18-12) at New Mexico (21-11), 9 p.m.
Washington State (17-15) at St. Mary's, Calif. (25-6), 10 p.m.
Wednesday, March 18
Duquesne (21-12) at Virginia Tech (18-14), 6 p.m.
Miami (18-12) at Providence (19-13), 6 p.m.
Illinois State (24-9) at Kansas State (21-11), 7 p.m.
Bowling Green (19-13) at Creighton (26-7), 7 p.m.
Tennessee-Martin (22-9) at Auburn (22-11), 7 p.m.
Jacksonville (18-13) at Florida (23-10), 7 p.m.
Northwestern (17-13) at Tulsa (24-10), 8 p.m.
Georgetown (16-14) at Baylor (20-14), 8 p.m.
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