INDIANAPOLIS — If today's Midwest Regional game between Auburn and the University of San Diego is as lively as Wednesday's verbal exchange between the opposing coaches, it could be one of the more entertaining matchups of the 32 opening-round games of the NCAA tournament.
USD's Hank Egan, an old friend and admirer of his Auburn counterpart, Sonny Smith, was in rare form as he prepared to send his Toreros (24-5) against a Southeastern Conference team that has a 17-12 record.
Today's Hoosier Dome duel, which begins at 4:07 p.m. PST, will be televised in San Diego on Channel 69 and broadcast on KVSD-AM (1000).
"Bobby Knight told me Auburn has the best personnel of any team here," Egan said by way of a reply to a string of compliments, along with a little needling, Smith threw at him.
The winner of today's game, which matches the No. 8- and No. 9-seeded teams in the Midwest (USD being the ninth seed), will face the winner of tonight's Indiana-Fairfield game on Saturday.
Smith and Auburn faced a similar situation three years ago, when they faced unheralded Richmond. The Spiders upset Auburn, spoiling a date with Knight's Hoosiers.
Smith has tried to convince his Tigers that USD could prevent them from squaring off with Indiana. He tried to convince the media of the same thing on the eve of the tournament.
"I think San Diego could really do something in this tournament," he said. "I'm thinking to myself, 'This is the most overlooked team I've ever seen,' and I thought our team may have been the most overrated."
Smith said the Toreros are very well-coached by Egan, whom he characterized as a man keen on preparation, defense and patience.
Smith couldn't resist getting in a dig at Egan's low-key personality.
"Basically, he's got the personality of a water faucet," Smith said.
Egan grinned when he heard that.
"I am not going to try to exchange quips with him. He wins hands down," Egan said of a man he likes and sometimes plays golf with at summer coaching clinics. "But I'll still try to win the ballgame. It's not Sonny's personality that worries me, it's his team."
There were about 15,000 fans in the Hoosier Dome Wednesday evening when the teams, including Indiana, held workouts. USD didn't play many games before crowds that big, although Auburn, which has been in four straight NCAA tournaments, has grown accustomed to big turnouts for practice.
But this isn't the first time in the tournament for USD, which lost to Princeton three years ago in the first round of the East Regional, and the Toreros are not awed by being here.
"I was surprised to see all the people here," said Scott Thompson, USD's 7-foot senior center.
"But we're not intimidated. We will play hard and we'll be all right. I don't think we should be considered the underdog. We know we can play with anybody here."
As Smith sees it, Thompson is half the problem for his team today. The Tigers have no one taller than 6-feet 7-inches in their front court.
The other concern voiced by the Auburn coach is containing USD's exceptional group of three-point shooters, including Paul Leonard, Danny Means and Mark Manor.
"This is going to be a very difficult game for us," Smith said. "With their three-point shooters and their 7-footer, they can exploit us totally. In both those ways, they remind me a lot of Vanderbilt, which beat us, 91-75."
USD leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense, allowing the opposition just 40% of its shots.
"People ask why that is," Egan said. "Well, there's no magic, no tricks. We communicate well and work hard. It's a pretty vanilla package."
It's also not something that seems to worry Smith.
He doesn't mind his players coming down the floor and shooting the ball after making only one pass.
In fact, he is worried because his team hasn't been making enough turnovers lately. To Smith, it's a sign that Auburn is playing its best--running and taking chances--when the turnovers mount.
The Tigers, however, played well in their final three games, which coincided with the return of senior guard Gerald White from a string of physical problems.
USD received an at-large berth after being upset in last weekend's West Coast Athletic Conference tournament.
Father Patrick Cahill, USD athletic director, talked with great animation about his school's appearances in the tournament.
"I certainly buy Jim Valvano's (the North Carolina State coach) argument that it can give anybody a dream," he said. "Unquestionably, our showing in 1984 increased awareness of USD.
"Before that, people were always asking, 'Who is San Diego?' Our coaches don't have that problem anymore. The NCAA tournament has been a mode of recognition for us. Our enthusiasm this year is just as high and just as genuine as it was three years ago."
If anything, the Toreros are even more enthusiastic about this year's tournament berth. USD players, without seeming cocky, have reflected quiet confidence that they can beat Auburn and earn a chance to play Indiana on national television Saturday.
The Toreros conceded that they were nervous when they were beaten by Pepperdine in the WCAC semifinals, but they say the pressure is off now and they will be relaxed and at their best here on one of college basketball's most visible stages.
HOW THEY MATCH UP
Aub. USD Record 17-12 24-5 Avg. Pts. 80.2 69.8 Opp. Avg. Pts. 74.3 60.3 Margin 5.9 9.5 FG Pct. 50.2 49.5 Opp. FG Pct. 45.8 40.0 3-Pt. Pct. 38.3 43.7 FT Pct. 72.5 71.8 Reb. Avg. 39.7 34.9