Ira Bowman scouted both Gonzaga and Baylor this season.
He pored over film before Auburn’s games against both those teams this year, but even he couldn’t say which one was the best team in the country.
“Either one of them could be No. 1,” he said before the Baylor game.
Finally, tonight, he and the rest of the world will find out who’ll be the national champion, when Gonzaga and Baylor meet in the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament final.
Bowman said that back in January on Auburn’s radio pregame show before Auburn’s meeting with Baylor in the Big 12-SEC Challenge on Jan. 30. Baylor was ranked No. 2 at the time, behind only Gonzaga, who Bowman had also been charged with evaluating for the Auburn coaching staff before the Tigers’ game against Gonzaga on Nov. 27 in the Fort Myers Tip-Off in Florida. That even the trained eye of Bowman couldn’t place one over the other is a testament to the seasons Gonzaga and Baylor have had, charging toward the national championship game.
And that Auburn played both those teams is a testament to the strength of the schedule Auburn battled through this season in a rebuilding year which put a young team through plenty of learning experiences.
There was no postseason for Auburn this year, but the teams Auburn challenged itself against have left an imprint on the postseason.
Auburn not only played both teams in the NCAA Tournament final, but also played both teams in the NIT final. Memphis beat Mississippi State 77-64 on March 28 to win the consolation tournament. Auburn beat both those teams this season, beating Memphis back on Dec. 12 in Atlanta in non-conference play, then defeating Mississippi State 78-71 in the team’s finale on March 6.
As for the NCAA Tournament field, Auburn played 10 of the 68 teams in the bracket, picking up wins over four of them.
Texas Southern went on to win the SWAC’s automatic qualifier bid after Auburn topped the team 80-63 in non-conference play on Dec. 15. A week later, Auburn hosted and defeated Appalachian State, which went on to win the Sun Belt’s automatic bid.
Auburn ultimately played five regular-season conference champions this season, with Texas Southern and Appalachian State counting alongside Gonzaga and Baylor plus SEC champion Alabama. Auburn lost to Gonzaga 90-67 early in the season and lost to Baylor 84-72 on the road on Baylor’s home floor.
In conference, Auburn picked up wins over Tennessee and Missouri, who both went on to make the NCAA Tournament field. Auburn also played and lost to entrants Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and LSU.
Auburn finished the year 13-14, but the gambit is clear: Having sharpened their teeth against postseason-caliber opponents this year, Auburn hopes to make its own mark on the postseason in the near future.