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Iowa men hope Crimson Tide fans become Hawkeyes for a night
Auburn plays Iowa Thursday in the heart of Tigers country, but that doesn’t mean everyone here will be in its corner
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Hawkeye guard Connor McCaffery searched for an edge once Iowa’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament foe and site were announced Sunday.
Auburn? in Birmingham? That didn’t sound ideal for the Hawkeyes Thursday in their 5:50 p.m. first-round matchup. Birmingham is a 2-hour drive up U.S. Highway 280 from Auburn.
McCaffery quickly realized Alabama was playing in the Thursday afternoon session here. He issued an appeal on social media for Crimson Tide fans to stick around for the evening games and root against their state rivals from Auburn.
“I had to say something,” McCaffery said here Wednesday. “I don’t think I had a lot of Alabama followers, but if I had any, hopefully they’re on our side now.”
Alabama, the top seed in the Midwest Region, had been confident for some time that it would begin NCAA play in Birmingham. Crimson Tide fans gobbled tickets before Sunday’s pairings. Auburn didn’t know it was staying in-state, and its fans scrambled for seats.
“I would imagine they are going to find a way to get tickets,” Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said. “I know it's been really difficult. My phone has rung off the hook. And I have had to say no to a lot of friends and a lot of people who wanted to get tickets because they are just hard to come by.”
Ultimately, of course, the winner of Auburn-Iowa will be determined by performance, not crowd noise. It’s a typical first-round game between the Nos. 8 and 9 seeds. Ninth-seed Auburn was a 1.5-point pick as of Wednesday afternoon.
Matt Gatens is the Iowa assistant coach assigned with the scouting report for this game. He was on Pearl’s Auburn staff from 2017-2019.
“They’re like most of his teams,” Gatens said. “They play really hard, physical, and they rebound the ball really well. They block shots, they fly around.”
Pearl had two players taken in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft, power forward Jabari Smith and center Walker Kessler. He helped fill the void with 6-foot-10 Johni Broome, who transferred from Morehead State and averages 14 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots.
“He's an old-school center,” Pearl said. “Can score with his back to the basket. At times he has shown the ability to stretch with his 3-ball. He's a very willing passer. He understands the game.”
Another Tiger to worry about is 5-foot-11 guard Wendell Green, who averages 13.8 points and is an excellent defender. “Defense” is the byword for the team. Auburn’s foes average a mere 28.8 percent from 3-point distance.
“Ball pressure has been a function of our defense,” Pearl said, “and hopefully that can help our 3-point field goal percentage defense, because that will be important tomorrow.”
Auburn is 12th in the nation in blocked shots with 5.1 per game.
“It's not like we haven't seen it before,” Iowa’s Filip Rebraca said, “but we respect that they are elite at it.”
As for the pro-Auburn crowd at a supposed neutral site, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery gives it little thought.
“We see a lot of hostile environments in our league,” he said.
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