Is Kansas on the cusp of making another deep run in the NCAA Tournament? Can Auburn build on the momentum it gained from winning the SEC Tournament after surviving a near upset? Both teams left polar opposite impressions in the first round ahead of their second-round clash on Saturday evening.
The Jayhawks showed that they may not have taken a step back amid a turbulent regular season after crushing Northeastern 87-53 on Thursday. Dedric Lawson led the way with 25 points and 11 rebounds as Kansas used a 32-6 second-half run to subdue the Huskies.
The Tigers, on the other hand, narrowly avoided joining the infamous 12-over-5 upset club after escaping with a 78-77 win over New Mexico State. Auburn fouled Terrell Brown behind the 3-point line with 1.7 seconds left, but Brown missed two of three free throws. The Aggies got another chance when the Tigers knocked the ball out with 1.1 seconds left, only for Trevelin Queen to miss a corner three at the buzzer.
This marks the second time Auburn and Kansas have faced each other in the NCAA Tournament. The No. 11-seeded Tigers upset the No. 3-seeded Jayhawks 66-64 in the second round of the 1985 NCAA Tournament.
Second Round: No. 5 Auburn Tigers (27-9) vs. No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks (26-9)
Time: Approximately 9:40 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: Vivint Smart Home Arena (Salt Lake City,)
Keys for Auburn
The Tigers need to be proficient at knocking down shots from the perimeter. Kansas can make life miserable for opponents with all of its size and length around the basket. If guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown can get cooking on the outside early, it could be a tremendous equalizer. Harper, in particular, gave Auburn a major spark after scoring 17 points against New Mexico State while shooting 4-of-8 from 3-point range.
Finding a way to stop Dedric Lawson is crucial for Auburn. Lawson ended up being a matchup nightmare for Northeastern. He can bang around in the post, but he's also capable of stepping out and knocking down shots on the perimeter. Lawson's multi-dimensional talents have helped Kansas survive losing other key stars earlier in the season. If Auburn can't figure out how to effectively guard him and limit his touches, it will be a long 40 minutes for the Tigers.
Keys for Kansas
One reason why the Jayhawks pulled away from Northeastern with minimal effort is that they imposed their will around the basket. Kansas finished with a 45-27 advantage on rebounds and outscored the Huskies 50-16 in the paint. The Jayhawks likely won't dominate inside to the same degree against Auburn, but they can get a definite edge there. The Tigers struggled on the glass against New Mexico State. They pulled down only 24 rebounds compared to 39 for the Aggies.
Pushing the ball to set up transition baskets could really pay off for the Jayhawks. Auburn struggled to defend in transition against New Mexico State, getting outscored 17-5 on fast-break points. Kansas has guards like K.J. Lawson and Devon Dotson who are quick enough to push a faster pace and Dedric Lawson causes enough inside and outside matchup problems that he should get plenty of good looks all over the floor.
Kansas seems to have shaken off the late-season struggles that ended the team's Big 12 championship streak. The Jayhawks look like a top-10 team again. Auburn is a talented team in its own right, but the Tigers have more visible flaws that can be exploited. Look for Kansas to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament once again.
Prediction: Kansas 75, Auburn 68
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.