Now that my undefeated record of picking No. 13 seeds or lower in the NCAA Tournament publicly is still intact after Furman’s victory over Virginia on Thursday, I’m deciding to not rest on my laurels and tell you all about another prediction I made earlier this week. For fans of Deadspin’s Agree to Disagree video series, this is a selection I’ve already proclaimed on camera. Auburn will upset the Midwest region’s No. 1 seed in Houston on Saturday. It’s not quite the lopsided upset as picking the Paladins or Saint Peter’s over Kentucky last year, but it’s no doubt not what’ll be favored.
The Cougars looked terrible against one of the worst teams in the NCAA Tournament. Northern Kentucky got out of a weak low-major in the Horizon League. The Norse genuinely impressed me last night and held tough with one of the supposed best teams in the country. Kelvin Sampson’s squad earned that No. 1 seed and was arguably the most consistent team in the nation during the regular season. And Houston either was looking past a team it knew it could easily defeat, or the upstart Norse truly exposed what a Marcus Sasser-less team looks like.
If you take the best player away from any great team, it won’t be as mighty anymore. Purdue without Zach Edey is a bubble team and might be playing in the NIT right now. Alabama without Brandon Miller, which should be a reality right now with the off-court drama surrounding the Crimson Tide, would’ve gotten a strong seed in The Big Dance, but likely more toward the 4-5 line. Sasser is that needle-mover for the Cougars. The drop-off without the 6-foot-2 senior guard and likely NBA lottery pick because of a groin injury suffered in the American Athletic Conference Tournament last week, is apparent. He was pulled at halftime by Sampson and Houston was inconsistent without him.
Auburn had a true toss-up matchup with Iowa on paper. The Tigers were always better than their seeding, while Iowa wasn’t. The Hawkeyes have never had a long run in the tournament under Fran McCaffery and this year’s Kris Murray-led squad was no different. The SEC outmuscled the Big Ten. There’s no way around that. And Auburn could have thrown a few more punches at the end of the game if needed. In the nightcap, it was obvious by the end of the game how tired Northern Kentucky was. A team better conditioned to play with Houston, which will be every team the Cougars see the rest of the season, will be able to take better advantage of a prone, unmotivated squad. And if the lack of drive isn’t reality for UH, it didn’t show it against the Norse. It also has a great chance for redemption against Auburn. But nothing’s guaranteed. And Bruce Pearl-coached teams usually don’t miss when given that sort of opportunity.
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It’s not clear if Sasser will play at 7:10 p.m. on TBS with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. It is clear that if he plays, he won’t be at full health, which is already a downgrade from what we’ve expected from the Cougars for most of this season. Auburn is a team that’s gone through a bunch of adversity this season and still found its way safely into March Madness. It’s a different kind of trap to define the adversity for Houston. Saying the Cougars have been through none would be foolish. Their paths of resistance have been tested in games, with more tangible rewards, like 11 more wins than the Tigers this season, along the way. That’ll mean little come Saturday night in Birmingham, a short 110-mile trip from Auburn. And it might not be a home game for the AU, but it should feel like it from the crowd. Houston’s walking into enemy territory and I don’t think it’ll be strong enough to walk out of the primetime matchup still with a season to play for.