Bruce Pearl and his Auburn program are getting ready to open their NCAA Tournament journey on Thursday. That matchup will be played against Iowa in Birmingham with the Tigers getting a location close to home.

The in-state location for Auburn became a topic of conversation early in the week. Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson was critical of the No. 1 seeded Cougars potentially playing Auburn in Birmingham in the second round, saying “maybe we should have been a 9-seed.”

During Wednesday’s press conference, Pearl was asked about playing in Birmingham for Thursday’s game and a potential second-round game against the winner of the Houston vs. Northern Kentucky game. Pearl believes part of Auburn’s positioning is the Tigers being rewarded by the committee for a tough early-season schedule.

“Two things. One, I felt like we were somewhere between and 8 and 10 based on the math. Our analytics had us around 32 in most of the categories. And the body of work was clearly what mattered most to this committee,” Pearl said. “What you did in November mattered. And, you know, Auburn was the only Power Five school to have five true road game against Power Five opponents. Only three teams played more — had more games and more appearances against teams in this field than Auburn. Kansas, Baylor, Iowa State. We were right there. We scheduled really hard, put our kids in challenging positions, so we got rewarded.”

As for playing in Birmingham, Pearl believes it will be a legitimate “neutral site in every way” with the location not having a huge impact on the outcome.

“Regarding being in Birmingham, I’ll answer the question even before it’s asked. In ’18 when we win the Championship of the SEC we went out to California. In ’19 when we won the tournament and got to the Final Four it was through Salt Lake City and Kansas. And so, you know, the pod system was going then, and you know, just the way it worked out, we had to travel,” explained Pearl. “And so now the fact that it’s worked out, we’re able to be, you know, couple hours from campus is great. That’s why the pod system was created. It’s great for our students and great for our fans and those that can get into the game. It won’t have a huge effect on the game much because it’s a neutral site in every way. But we’re happy to be here. We feel fortunate to be here.”

At the end of the day, March is all about “survive and advance,” regardless of location. We’ll see what that means for Auburn over the first weekend.

(H/T ASAP Sports)