Jeff Swinger
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl directs his team in the first half against New Mexico State during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Jeff Swinger)

SALT LAKE CITY — Auburn's basketball team barely survived a near-disastrous collapse in the closing seconds of its NCAA Tournament opener Thursday at Vivint Arena.

But like any tough cat with nine lives, the Tigers prevailed and came away with a tense, emotional one-point win.

Kansas, meanwhile, walloped its first-round opponent by a whopping 34-point margin, with the Jayhawks (26-9) shooting an almost unconscious 70 percent from the field in the second half.

So when these two teams tangle in Saturday night's second-round matchup, it raises the question: Who, if anyone, will have the advantage?

Is it better to be coming off a meltdown or a beatdown? Does either outcome offer a team, or its opponent, an emotional or psychological edge?

Kansas coach Bill Self, whose fourth-seeded squad squashed Northeastern 87-53, definitely doesn't figure that it really matters much.

"I personally don't think so," said Self, who has piled up an impressive 38-14 NCAA Tournament record which includes 16 consecutive trips to the Big Dance and a national championship since taking over the Jayhawks' tradition-rich program in 2003.

"We read into those things. So if I'm coaching, if we had the same game that (Auburn coach) Bruce (Pearl) had, I would say that's perfect, it played out perfectly. Then, if we had the game that we had, I would say that it played out perfectly.

"They've been in real game pressure, which could be an advantage for them," Self said of the Tigers (27-9). "But who knows? I think we try to make so much of things like that, and I'm not sure there's an exact science to which it benefits more."

Pearl, Auburn's fiery fifth-year head coach, had to endure every coach's nightmare as his team squandered almost all of a seemingly safe 13-point lead over the final seven minutes of Thursday's game.

Down the stretch, there were many moments when the TV cameras zoomed in for a closeup on Pearl, and he looked like a tortured soul who had slammed his finger in a car door or was about to blow a gasket.

And rightfully so.

With time running out and Auburn clinging to a 78-76 lead, the Tigers' opponent, New Mexico State, passed up a potential game-tying layup in favor of a 3-point try which missed the mark with just 1.9 seconds remaining.

Oh, but wait — this one was far from over yet.

Because, you see, the NMSU shooter, Terrell Brown, was fouled on his potential game-winning shot and subsequently stepped to the free-throw line for three shots.

As Pearl agonized on the sideline, those free throws could spell the difference between a guy getting endless glory or forever being the goat.

But Brown missed the first shot and, after making the second to make it 78-77, his third attempt rimmed out, only to see Auburn knock the rebound out of bounds with 1.1 seconds left.

" I think we try to make so much of things like that, and I'm not sure there's an exact science to which it benefits more. "
Kansas head coach Bill Self

New Mexico State thus got one more chance and ran a perfectly executed in-bounds play, but Trevelin Queen airballed a 3-point attempt from the corner to finally let the Tigers off the hook.

"I was pleased with our team after the game because we weren't very happy," Pearl said Friday. "We were accountable for the fact that we had a meltdown and ... New Mexico State's inside guys really had their way with us.

"And Kansas' inside guys are bigger and better, so we have our hands full from that standpoint.

"But the only other advantage or disadvantage was we were really tired yesterday. Five games in eight days is a lot, plus the travel," Pearl said. "So even though this will be six games in 10 days, I really feel like having played early Thursday and now with a later start Saturday, we'll be fine. We will be fresher than we were on Thursday."

So there you have it, a complete contrast in first-round outcomes and coaching perspectives.

One team, Auburn, barely dodged a bullet, while the other team, Kansas, was firing them — and rarely missing.

One team dealt with difficult adversity, stared defeat squarely in the face and came away with an emotionally draining victory. The other team had its way, walked off the court with an easy win and got an opportunity to give its front-line players some rest.

And when it comes to a team's psyche and self-confidence, a blowout's gotta be a whole lot better than a blown lead, right? After all, playing loose and relaxed beats the heck out of being stressed out and uptight.

Comment on this story

Yep, dazzle beats frazzle every time.

Then again, surviving a tense pressure situation can galvanize a team, bring it much closer together and remind players that whatever doesn't kill them will make 'em stronger. Indeed, it'll toughen 'em up for the next time.

And maybe one team feels like it still has a point it must prove, while perhaps the other team's already proven theirs.

Who knows?

Well, the best way to settle this issue is on the court — and, when it comes right down to it, isn't that what March Madness is truly all about?