Are the Tigers Going to Be In Or Out?

As Auburn heads into the SEC Basketball Tournament in New Orleans, there is still doubt about Auburn's chances for making the NCAA field.

The moment of truth is less than a week away. Will Auburn squeeze into the NCAA Tournament or be left to play in the NIT? The answer is elusive. Some say the Tigers are in because of their 8-8 Southeastern Conference record. Others say they need to make a statement in the SEC Tournament. Count me in the second group.

As it stands now, there are significant pros and significant cons for including Auburn in the field of 65. The pros:

*A break-even record in the highest rated conference in college basketball.

*Three road wins, more than any other team in the SEC West.

*Believe it or not, a schedule rated the 38th toughest in the country.

*A second-place finish in the SEC West.

The cons:

*A 4-6 record in the last 10 games and a 4-8 record since starting the SEC season 4-0.

*Lack of a signature victory. The best teams the Tigers have beaten are Alabama and LSU.

*Five losses in the last seven games.

It could come down to a battle between Auburn and Alabama for the SEC's last slot in the tournament, but even that is making the rather large assumption that, for the first time, seven SEC teams will be invited. Kentucky, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi State are clearly in. Though some question it, I think Tennessee, with a 9-7 conference record, is in. I think LSU, which is 8-8 but finished the season on a tear, is in.

That adds up to six and leaves Auburn and Alabama. Choosing between those two could be difficult. Alabama had a tougher nonconference schedule, though not as much as tougher as some say. The Tide played Oklahoma and Xavier, two teams better than any Auburn played. Beyond that, there wasn't much difference. Ohio State is no juggernaut. Neither is (or was) St. Bonaventure. Anyway, the Tide gets the nonconference edge. In conference play, Alabama was 7-9. That adds up to an eighth-place overall finish in the SEC. Auburn finished tied for sixth.

My guess is--and it's only a guess--is that seven SEC teams are going to the show. The SEC Tournament could be the deciding factor between Auburn and Alabama for the last spot. It won't be easy for either team. Alabama's first-round game against South Carolina won't mean a thing unless the Tide loses. Its second-round game, if it wins, will be against Kentucky and its perfect SEC record. Auburn earned a first-round bye and will play the Georgia-Arkansas winner, almost certainly Georgia. Should Auburn upset the Bulldogs, it would play the Kentucky-Alabama winner in the semi-finals. For any team to beat Kentucky would be an upset. Neither Auburn nor Alabama has shown anything over the course of the season to indicate it could happen.

UGLY FINISH

Auburn went to Mississippi State on Saturday to play for a division championship in the final game of the regular season. Players vowed they would make amends for a 63-46 loss to the Bulldogs at home. They didn't, losing an even more embarrassing 67-45 decision. It was an ugly, ugly loss. The game was as good as over before it was five minutes old. The Tigers simply couldn't score with any consistency.

Mississippi State plays a brawling, physical style that the Tigers have difficulty coping with. Marquis Daniels put it succinctly when it was over. He said the Tigers didn't stand up to Mississippi State's physical play. And he was right. As bad as it was, truth is the division championship wasn't lost in Starkville on Saturday. Beating a team as strong as the Bulldogs on the road isn't something any team can count on. The biggest loss, by far, of Auburn's season was 60-57 to Tennessee at home on Feb. 1. If the Tigers had won that game--and they should have won it--they would be division co-champions, have a 9-7 SEC record and probably be locked into the NCAA Tournament.

REMARKABLE ACCOMPLISHMENT

Kentucky's 16-0 run through the SEC is one of the more amazing feats in the league's basketball history. The Wildcats don't have the overwhelming talent they have had in many seasons. On top of that, the league has never been stronger.

Amazingly, there was serious grumbling about Smith going into this season. I doubt if anybody is doing much grumbling now.

TURMOIL AT GEORGIA

Turmoil continues to swirl around Georgia coach Jim Harrick. Georgia president Michael Adams would not even say last week that Harrick would still be Georgia's coach in the SEC Tournament.

Whether he makes it through the rest of this season or not, I'd say the odds are overwhelming that Harrick will not be Georgia's coach next season. Until next time…


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