Even though Iowa and Auburn entered the 2022-23 campaign trying to replace their top performer from last season, neither missed a beat.
The Tigers watched the Houston Rockets select Jabari Smith Jr. with the third overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft, and the Hawkeyes felt the exit of Keegan Murray, who went to the Sacramento Kings at No. 4.
Now eighth-seeded Iowa and ninth-seeded Auburn measure up in mid-March without those pieces clash on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Birmingham, Ala.
Smith led the Tigers to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, while Murray and the Hawkeyes were a first-round exit. Both squads will be hoping to improve upon last year’s showing, although neither has necessarily been peaking at the right time.
Auburn (20-12) has dropped three of its last four games, most recently falling 76-73 to Arkansas last Thursday in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
K.D. Johnson had a game-high 20 points and Allen Flanigan added 15 for the Tigers, but Auburn’s defense struggled, allowing the Razorbacks to shoot 56 percent from the field.
Tigers coach Bruce Pearl is banking on Thursday’s venue providing an atmosphere that helps Auburn break out of its cold spell.
“To be in Birmingham, for our fans and for our students, it’s just awesome,” Pearl said. “Hopefully, we’ll get great support and see if we can have a shining moment or two.”
However, Iowa guard Connor McCaffery thinks otherwise.
“What you’ve got to know is we’re playing in Birmingham and Alabama’s there, so they’re going to be rooting for us,” McCaffery said. “Because they hate Auburn.”
The Hawkeyes (19-13) could use some fan support considering they have lost four of their last six games. Like the Tigers, Iowa also got bounced in the second round of its conference tournament, dropping a 73-69 decision to Ohio State.
Filip Rebraca paced the Hawkeyes with 20 points and seven rebounds, while Kris Murray and Tony Perkins supplied 17 and 16 points, respectively. Iowa was within two with 20 seconds left, but the Buckeyes’ Justice Sueing converted a pair of foul shots with 10 seconds remaining to ice the game.
With his brother now in the NBA, Kris Murray has stepped into the spotlight for the Hawkeyes. He’s averaging 20.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game and is eager to carry the team well past the first round.
“Just get our mojo back, especially just shooting the ball,” Kris Murray said of what it will take for Iowa to make a deep run in the tournament. “Defensively we’re gonna be locked in these next few games ‘cause we know it’s gonna be win or go home.
“We don’t got another opportunity to play at this level, so we definitely have to understand that.”
Savoring the moment has been a common theme on both sides, especially for Pearl, who will be coaching a team in the NCAA Tournament for the 12th time.
“No matter how old you get or how long you’ve been doing it, it’s still very special to see your name and hear your name called,” Pearl said. “I just cannot take making this tournament for granted.”
–Field Level Media