Marshall: AU Hoops Season Already a Success

Columnist Phillip Marshall looks at Auburn's final regular season game against Ole Miss and Auburn's postseason chances.

Part of the charm of college basketball's regular season is its unpredictability. Good teams sometimes lose to bad teams, especially on the road. Going unbeaten is virtually unheard of.

But then we come to this point. No longer is it a matter of the old coaches' cliché of "one game at a time." Saturday's game against Ole Miss in Oxford is the biggest basketball game Auburn has played in at least four years.

The Southeastern Conference West Division race is headed for a fascinating conclusion. Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State go into the final weekend tied with 7-8 league records.

Does that mean there is a lot of parity or does it mean mediocrity runs rampant in the West? We'll know more about that after next week's SEC Tournament. What matters now is that the West Division title will be decided in Oxford and in Starkville, where Alabama plays Mississippi State. The two winners will be co-champions.

That Jeff Lebo's third Auburn team is within one win of a championship barely two weeks after it was sitting at 4-8 with a four-game losing streak is nothing short of remarkable.

A late rally at Georgia two weeks ago fell short, but it seemed to awaken something in these Tigers. They've played like one of the better teams in the SEC since, beating Arkansas at home, Alabama in Tuscaloosa and LSU at home.

Sadly, because of the flawed way the NCAA selection committee does business, sharing a division championship might not be enough to get Auburn into the NCAA Tournament.

Korvotney Barber is one of the reasons why Auburn's NCAA hopes are still alive.

Computers – which are a terribly bad way to compare teams – say Auburn is the worst team in the SEC. Its power rating (RPI) of 101 is even worse than LSU and South Carolina, winners of four league games apiece.

It should be easy enough for a mortal human to know, without the help of a computer, that a team that swept Alabama, that beat Tennessee and Vanderbilt at home, is not the weakest team in the SEC.

It doesn't seem to matter that Auburn has played six of the top 14 teams in the country, according to that same RPI, that it has played two games against teams that have been ranked No. 1 in the nation, that it has persevered through the conference that RPI says is the nation's best. We've been told for years that playing the likes of Pittsburgh, Texas A&M and Wisconsin is good even if you lose. That doesn't seem to be the case.

The problem, apparently, is that Auburn's cupcakes were weaker than a lot of other people's cupcakes. And therein lies the inherent weakness of using computers, whether for football or basketball.

A sure win is a sure win, whether it is over Charleston Southern or Hofstra in basketball, The Citadel or Western Michigan in football. After a point, it shouldn't matter if a team is No. 200 or No. 300 in the RPI.

Of course, none of that will really matter unless Auburn beats Ole Miss or makes a strong run in next week's SEC Tournament.

And beating Ole Miss will be a chore. The Rebels romped to an 82-59 victory at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum when Auburn turned the ball over a season-high 25 times.

The Rebels probably won't have it as easy this time, but Oxford has historically not been kind to Auburn teams playing weaker Ole Miss teams than this one.

Whatever happens in Oxford or next week in Atlanta, it should be clear to anyone paying attention that Lebo has his program on the right road.

If the Tigers pull it off, if they gain a share of the championship, Lebo deserves some serious consideration for Coach of the Year and Auburn deserves some serious consideration from the NCAA selection committee, regardless of what computers spit out.

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