KU’s Bill Self on his young team playing Auburn in the NCAA Tournament
Mitch Lightfoot and his Kansas basketball teammates stood in the southeast tunnel of Vivint Smart Home Arena on Thursday afternoon, eyes fixated on the court for the last 47 seconds of No. 5 seed Auburn’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against No. 12 New Mexico State.
“It took a while for that 47 seconds to go by,” said Lightfoot, who was anxious to start warming up for the Jayhawks’ first-round game over Northeastern, which KU would win 87-53.
“It was interesting,” added the 6-foot-8 junior from Gilbert, Ariz.
The Aggies’ Trevelin Queen launched a possible game-winning three-point shot from the corner just before the final horn — a shot that, had it fallen, would be forever part of NCAA lore.
Instead the shot clanged off the front rim, Auburn (27-9) survived and will meet No. 4 seed KU (26-9) in a second-round NCAA Midwest Regional game approximately 8:40 p.m. Central time Saturday (TBS).
“It happened right in front of us. I wasn’t able to see the hoop, but I saw him shoot it,” Lightfoot said, adding, “It was a good finish. We’d prepare the same way for either team. Auburn has great players and great coaching. It’ll be a challenge, but we’re up for it.”
KU forward Dedric Lawson, who scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in KU’s 34-point first-round victory over Northeastern, also studied the action from the crowded tunnel.
“Seeing the outcome of that game, you say, ‘Dang, that was a good game,’” Lawson said. “I wasn’t really cheering for anybody.”
Auburn nearly blew a 13-point lead with 7:52 to play, which could make the Tigers even more of a dangerous opponent Saturday.
“I really think so,” Lawson said, noting Auburn of the SEC might play with added fire. “Once you get out of a situation like that, your focus is more in tune to the next time you go out there and play again.”
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl — his Tigers are led by double-digit scorers Bryce Brown, 6-foot-3 senior who averages 15.4 points; Jared Harper, a 5-11 junior who averages 14.9; and sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, who averages 11.5 points and 6.7 rebounds — said his players “weren’t very happy” after the first-round nailbiter.
“We were accountable for the fact we had a meltdown and we did not play well defensively or keep New Mexico State off the boards,” Pearl said Friday. “The other disadvantage is we were really tired.”
It was Auburn’s fifth game in eight days after it played four straight days to win the SEC Tournament.
“So even though this will be six games in 10 days, I feel like having played early Thursday and now with a later start Saturday, we’ll be fine,” Pearl said. “We will be fresher than Thursday.”
Auburn, which had its scare on Thursday, takes a nine-game winning streak into the second-round game. KU, which enjoyed its blowout, has won four of five and six of eight.
“If I’m coaching, if we had the same game Bruce had, I would say that’s perfect,” KU coach Bill Self said. “It played out perfectly. Then if we had the game that we had, I would say that played out perfectly. They beat a team yesterday that went down to the last possession that we played them earlier in the year in Kansas City.”
KU beat New Mexico State 63-60 on Dec. 8 at the Sprint Center.
“They’re probably as hot as anybody in the tournament,” Self said of the Tigers. “I don’t know that we’re hot over time, but we played pretty well yesterday. So I can convince our guys that we’re hot, too.”
KU will face an Auburn team that like first-round foe Northeastern shoots a lot of threes. Auburn averages 11.3 three-point makes and 30.1 attempts per game. KU has made 254 of 724 threes for an average of 7.3 makes and 20.7 attempts.
“You’ve got to understand they are completely different teams,” Lightfoot said. “They both shoot the ball well. There’s a different speed to Auburn than there was Northeastern.”
That shows in the defensive stats. Auburn has forced teams into 622 turnovers (17.3 per game) while committing 427 (11.9 per game). KU has forced 459 turnovers (13.1 per game) while committing 467 (13.3 per game). Harper has 203 assists to 80 turnovers to KU freshman guard Devon Dotson’s 124 assists and 79 turnovers.
“They do a great job pressuring the ball, speeding the other team up,” said Dotson, who sprained his left ankle in the second half Thursday. Dotson said he’s receiving treatment and should be 100 percent for Saturday’s game. Sophomore guard Marcus Garrett has come down with flu-like symptoms but Self indicated Garrett should be able to play as well.
“We haven’t been great this year in ball security during stretches,” Self said. ”Careful is not the right word. We need to be very strong with the ball. Devon will have his hands full. I love his mentality, his talent. I love his toughness. It’ll be a big challenge for all our people, all our guards, but it will be one they will welcome and are really looking forward to.”
The winner will advance to the Sweet 16 on March 29 at the Sprint Center.
“The opportunity to get a second weekend … of course Auburn has the same opportunity,” Self said, “is something I think our guys will look at and say, ‘Considering everything we’ve been through, this has been a really good season.’ Still not great. But really good with a chance maybe to build on it.”