Now that my undefeated record to pick seeds No. 13 or lower in the NCAA Tournament publicly is still intact after Furman’s victory over Virginia On Thursday, I decide not to rest on my laurels and tell you about another prediction I made earlier this week. For Deadspin Fans agree to disagree video series, this is a selection I’ve already proclaimed on camera. Auburn will upset the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region in Houston on Saturday. It’s not quite the unbalanced upheaval to choose paladins or Saint Peter’s over Kentucky last year, but that’s probably not what will be privileged.
The Cougars looked terrible against one of the worst teams in the NCAA tournament. Northern Kentucky came out of a major weak spot in the Horizon League. The Norse really impressed me last night and held their own with one of the supposed best teams in the country. Kelvin Sampson’s team won that No. 1 seed and were arguably the most consistent team in the country during the regular season. And Houston was looking past a team he knew could easily defeat, or the upstart Norse really laid out what a team looks like without Marcus Sasser.
If you remove the best player from a big team, it won’t be as strong. Purdue without Zach Edey is a bubble team and could be playing in the NIT right now. Alabama without Brandon Millerwhich should be a reality right now with the off court drama surrounding the Crimson Tide, would have gotten a solid seed in The Big Dance, but probably more towards the 4-5 line. Sasser is that needle smuggler for the Cougars. The landing without the 6-foot-2 senior guard and probably an NBA lottery pick due to a groin injury sustained during the American Athletic Conference tournament last week, is evident. He was taken off at half-time by Sampson and Houston was inconsistent without him.
Auburn had a real draw with Iowa on paper. The Tigers have always been better than their top seed, while Iowa was not. The Hawkeyes never had a long run in the tournament under Fran McCaffery and the team led by Kris Murray this year was no different. The SEC has surpassed the Big Ten. There is no way around this. And Auburn could have thrown a few more punches late in the game if needed. In the nightcap, it was evident late in the game just how tired Northern Kentucky was. A team better conditioned to play with Houston, which will be all the teams the Cougars see the rest of the season, will be able to better take advantage of a prone and unmotivated team. And if the lack of dynamism is not a reality for UH, he did not show it against the Norse. He also has a great chance of redemption against Auburn. But nothing is guaranteed. And the teams coached by Bruce Pearl generally do not miss this kind of opportunity.
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It’s unclear if Sasser will play at 7:10 p.m. on TBS with a trip to the Sweet 16 in play. It’s clear that if he plays he won’t be at full health, which is already a downgrade from what we expect Cougars for most of this season. Auburn is a team that’s been through a lot of adversity this season and still found their way safely into March Madness. It’s another kind of trap to define Houston’s adversity. To say the Cougars haven’t been through any would be foolish. Their resistance paths have been tested in games, with more tangible rewards, like 11 more wins than the Tigers this season, along the way. That will mean little on Saturday night in Birmingham, a short 110-mile trip from Auburn. And it may not be a home game for UA, but it should look like the crowd. Houston is entering enemy territory and I don’t think they’ll be strong enough to walk out of the prime-time game with a season left to play.