Saturday, March 21, 2009 Updated: March 22, 1:45 PM ET
Rutgers will test Auburn's road game
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
Whitney Boddie dished out nine assists against Lehigh on Saturday.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Auburn isn't on a typical road trip. For one thing, the SEC regular-season champions have set up shop this weekend in the palatial locker room usually occupied by the Rutgers men's basketball team at the Louis Brown Athletic Center. It's a perk accorded to the pod's highest seed, and the No. 2 Tigers' traveling party looked comfortable checking out other games on the big screen after beating 15-seed Lehigh on Saturday.
But the New Jersey Turnpike still beckons in the distance, and the home crowd Monday night (ESPN2, 7 ET) will be anything but welcoming when the Tigers face No. 7 Rutgers.
"You have a hostile environment every time you play on the road," Auburn senior guard DeWanna Bonner said after her team's first-round win. "So I think we are prepared for it. They are a team that you see on the TV all the time and you think, 'Oh, I want to play Rutgers and see how I match up.' And I think we would do a great job and come out and focus."
That's the attitude you'd want to see out of a higher seed on the road, long on optimism and short on petulance at its lot in postseason life. And through two days on-site in Piscataway, Auburn feels like a team with a strong sense of self but without any of the overconfidence that can infest teams playing the role of favorite for the first time.
All that said, there's still the small matter of Auburn's road résumé. Nell Fortner's team went 13-2 on the road during the regular season (18-3 counting neutral-site games). But although winning is all that mattered on each of those 15 occasions, how the Tigers went about winning now matters as we start looking ahead. In seven conference road games, the Tigers averaged just 69.7 points, compared to 79.9 points in conference home games.
On the road in conference play, the Tigers shot 44.5 percent from the floor; at home, they shot 51.6 percent.
On the road in conference play, the Tigers had 74 assists and 104 turnovers; at home, they had 127 assists and 79 turnovers.
Only twice in seven conference road games did Auburn even manage to both shoot at least 40 percent from the field and finish with more assists than turnovers. One instance was against conference also-ran Alabama (albeit also a rival and a game played in front of nearly 4,000 fans); the other was a loss at Vanderbilt in which the Commodores shot 56 percent from the field -- the worst defensive mark of the season for Auburn. (For the record, Auburn shot 40.9 percent in what were realistically its three toughest out-of-conference road games -- at George Washington, Liberty and Miami.)
So, yes, Auburn is approaching Monday's second-round game the right way and dispatched its first-round opponent with the necessary cold-blooded efficiency. But location does matter, and playing Rutgers in Piscataway is an entirely new kind of test.
With that in mind, what are some areas to watch Monday night?
It wasn't quite a page out of Villanova's playbook, but one of the images that lingers from Rutgers' first-round win against VCU is of Khadijah Rushdan holding the ball just past midcourt as the Scarlet Knights gave the shot clock a 30-second workout.
Auburn's losses this season came against Georgia and Vanderbilt (the latter twice), teams that aren't interested in going to a track meet and seeing a basketball game break out. Even the Tigers' best road win, at LSU in February, came in a game during which they attempted just 67 combined field goals and free throws, easily their lowest total of the season. So more than establishing their preferred tempo in Baton Rouge, stellar shooting -- 49 percent from the floor and 83 percent from behind the arc -- saved the day when they played LSU's tempo.
In the past two years, Rutgers has played exactly one game in which both teams reached 70 points, and that was a 73-71 win against Connecticut in February 2008.
Epiphanny Prince isn't easy to stop, but Auburn could be the one to do it.
Rutgers can control tempo all it wants, but if Prince doesn't get going, the Scarlet Knights are still as likely to lose a 52-40 game as anything else. And although Auburn has a recent history of iffy road performances, it also has a history of making life miserable for opposing stars on just about any court (or at least those stars not named Christina Wirth).
Consider the following shooting lines turned in against the Tigers this season:
Sha Brooks, Florida: 3-of-18 Shekinna Stricklen, Tennessee: 3-of-19 Alexis Rack, Mississippi State: 3-of-23 Ashley Houts, Georgia: 3-of-12 (two games) LaSondra Barrett, LSU: 2-of-13 LaKeisha Eaddy, Temple: 4-of-15 Jantel Lavender, Ohio State: 9-of-27
That's a combined 21.3 percent shooting for a handful of the nation's better players. Auburn doesn't have a statistically great defense, at least by the standards of the tournament's other top seeds, but it has a quick, versatile and aggressive defense that could take away some of the lanes Prince loves to slice through on her way to the basket.
This one wasn't any contest Saturday. Auburn's bench tacked on 10-plus points to the final margin against Lehigh, while Rutgers watched an 18-point lead with just more than six minutes to play against VCU nearly evaporate with its freshman reserves on the court.
But over the long haul, neither team has proven to possess a particularly deep rotation. If either gets significant contributions beyond the top five, it could be a turning point.
For Auburn, it's hard not to be enticed by the sight of KeKe Carrier chewing up space in the paint. The 6-foot-7 post came in late against Lehigh and was darn near unstoppable. Of course, due respect to the Mountain Hawks, but Kia Vaughn and Rashidat Junaid are more physically capable of putting a body on Carrier if she gets in the game. On the other side, Myia McCurdy played 10 minutes against VCU after playing a total of eight in the team's last three games before the NCAA tournament. C. Vivian Stringer's "55" press has been used with varying degrees of frequency this season, but it's at its best when McCurdy is out there and could be a valuable weapon to slow the pace against Auburn.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.