LSU had just finished its first season under head coach Trent Johnson as the outright SEC regular season champions. Depending on what Tennessee does on Sunday, the LSU Tigers could win the championship by as much as a three-game margin.
However, on Saturday the Tigers were held to a season-low of 53 points and handed their second-worst loss of the season in a 69-53 defeat to Auburn. Johnson stepped up to the podium at the press conference after the game and had something to say before opening up for questions.
"We've had a lot of respect for Auburn all year long," Johnson remarked. "I don't think there is anybody in our league, maybe not anybody in the country, that's played as good of basketball in the last 45 days to two months."
Auburn improved to 21-10 overall and 10-6 in the SEC with the 69-53 victory, but somehow continues to get overlooked for a possible at-large spot in the NCAA tournament.
"It's real interesting from my standpoint," Johnson continued. "Everybody talks about Kentucky and Florida and some other teams in this league being bubble teams and all that. You don't ever hear Auburn's name in the mix. I've been through my share of teams and my share of post-season experiences. That is an NCAA tournament-caliber team. They've given us as tough of a matchup as anybody has all year long."
No 10-win SEC team since the expansion in 1992-1993 has been left out of the NCAA Tournament. Auburn, with a 10-6 record and eight out of nine finish continues to be ignored. Again depending on Tennessee's game on Sunday, Auburn could finish with the second most SEC wins for the 2008-2009 season.
Also, Auburn is 4-4 on the road in the SEC and is the only team to beat both LSU and Tennessee.
"I just know this," Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo said after the game. "Ten league wins, in this league, it's never happened before where 10 doesn't gets in. The way we're playing right now and I don't think after this win against LSU–we're the only team to beat LSU and Tennessee, the top two teams in the SEC–I don't think you can ignore that.
"I don't know what they look at," he added. "You can look at numbers all you want. The numbers certainly aren't going to dictate how well our team is playing right now. I'm not one to toot our own horn, but I've got to for these kids. There's no reason right now I don't think, right now with the way we're playing. What are we now? Eight out of nine?
"To say we're not even in the mix is just a complete slap in the face to our kids and to the Southeastern Conference in my opinion," Lebo continued. "This league is a good league. Is it as strong as years past? Maybe not. But it's not one that's far below some of these other ones. I watch a lot of basketball. I see a lot of basketball. These kids certainly have put themselves in a position to be talked about."
Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com and Jerry P. Palm over collegerpi.com are two of the experts when it comes to NCAA selections. In their recent projections, both have Creighton, Maryland, Wisconsin, UNLV, Texas A&M, Ohio State, Boston College, Minnesota, Penn State and Michigan among their at-large teams in the field. Palm also has Arizona and Rhode Island in the tournament.
Palm has overall champion LSU as a six seed in the NCAA tournament and East champ Tennessee as a nine seed. That's it. Just two SEC teams in his field, and terribly seeded. It is a down year in the SEC, but not that down. Marcus Thornton, Tasmin Mitchell, Tyler Smith, Devan Downey, Jodie Meeks, Patrick Patterson, Nick Calathes, Korvotney Barber, David Huertas, A.J. Ogilvy, Alonzo Gee, Terrance Woodbury and Wayne Chism would probably argue that it's not that down of a year for the league.
"They're dogging the SEC," Lebo said of projections. "They kill the SEC. They kill the SEC West in particularly. The SEC West was .500 against the SEC East the last I checked. I don't know what happened today. I don't know how anybody can say that the West is a heck of a lot worse than the East. There have been some years where that has been the case. I don't know anybody in any of BCS leagues that have won eight out of nine. Maybe there are one or two. Maybe (North) Carolina? I don't know. Duke is playing well. But you can't take away from the kids."
Auburn has just one "bad loss" this season and that came in game number two against Mercer all the way back on Nov. 19. The Tigers also lost to NCAA locks Xavier and Dayton and NCAA bubble Northern Iowa. However, the Tigers were playing without senior Rasheem Barrett, who was injured early in the season. He averaged 7.2 points per game as Auburn was 13-9 on Feb. 4. Barrett has upped that to 11.6 points per game over the last nine contests. Also, newcomers Frankie Sullivan an Brendon Knox weren't key contributors early in the year like they are now.
The Tigers have been a different team starting with the win over Tennessee on Feb. 7.
The NCAA selection committee puts emphasis on how a team finishes. With that in mind, the Tigers could be considered a lock with their accomplishments in the last month. It started with a win over #17 RPI Tennessee and finished with a win over #35 RPI LSU. It included three conference road wins, which is also considered heavily by the NCAA. The Tigers also swept a Mississippi State team that finished with a 9-7 SEC mark.
"You've got to realize that Rasheem Barrett was not healthy," Lebo says of the pre-conference games. "He's a key ingredient to our team. There is no doubt about that. He blew out his groin and we played without him against Mercer. We played really until January is when he started to come around. You look at his numbers now–in the SEC versus before what he was giving us before when he was hurt and not healthy–it's substantially different. You're talking about a 1,300-point (career) scorer and a starter. Everybody knows that in basketball, one guy can make a huge difference for you. These kids have been unbelievable. I hope we can continue the ride."
Maryland lost in its regular season finale at Virginia, a team that Auburn beat on the road, to go 18-12 and 7-9 with wins in two of its last six. Arizona won just one of its last five games. Creighton needed a buzzer beater to defeat 16-16 Wichita State, but lost in the semifinals of the MVC tournament by 24 points to Illinois State.
That's quite contrary to Auburn's eight of out nine finish.
Both Lundari and Palm have eight of 11 Big 10 teams ‘in.' The formula for success was the same for almost all of the teams. Aside from the Big 10/ACC challenge, schedule easy out non-conference schedule, beat up on Iowa and Indiana and then get a couple more conference victories. Minnesota has won just six of its last 14 games and doesn't have a road win since January. Penn State is ‘in,' but with everything on the line it couldn't even beat Iowa on Saturday. Ohio State is just 2-4 in the last month with victories over Iowa and Penn State, but the Buckeyes are supposedly in at 19-9.
Speaking of not getting the job done, Rhode Island at 23-8, 12-4 in the Atlantic-10 and a strength of schedule well into the 100s, couldn't win at home against 17-loss Massachusetts on Saturday. Boston College almost did the same. With everything on the line, the Eagles survived at home by a point to an 18-loss Georgia Tech team.
Auburn, with its legitimacy up for argument, beat the 11th-ranked team in the country by 16 points. The Tigers have beaten five RPI top 100 teams in the last month (5-1). Florida, which is considered on the bubble after losing at Mississippi State on Wednesday (a place Auburn was victorious last week) is just 2-4 against RPI top 100 teams in the last 30 days.
Auburn's opening round of the SEC tournament is on Friday against the winner of Florida versus Arkansas. The best case scenario for the Tigers is that they play the Gators and continue to collect quality wins.
Lebo says it's a slap in the face to Auburn and the conference to continue to ignore Auburn's resume. Euphemisms aside, it would be both close-minded and ignorant to say that Lebo's Tigers don't belong.
Editor's Note: Stephen Atkinson is a staff writer for Inside the Auburn Tigers.