Suddenly, Texas Tech, Temple and North Carolina jumped into the picture Friday with big upsets in their conference tournaments. If any of them win their tournament championships, somebody who would have gone will be left out. Texas Tech or North Carolina might even squeeze in by just getting to the finals.
Auburn could, of course, erase all question with a victory over Kentucky in today's semi-finals. Could that happen? Sure it could, but the odds are very long. Florida, Kentucky, LSU and Mississippi State have locked up NCAA bids. That leaves Auburn, Tennessee and Alabama to fight over what's left for the SEC. In my mind, Auburn moved ahead of the other two Friday. Tennessee's RPI is in the 50s, not a good sign. Alabama played a strong nonconference schedule but has lost to the bottom-feeders of the SEC--twice to Vanderbilt, to Arkansas and to Ole Miss--and won just seven times in 17 tries against SEC teams. Though, for some reason, a lot of national media types seem to want Alabama in the tournament, I thought the Tide played its way out of it in Thursday's embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt. But, hey, what do I know? The only people who really know are the committee members, and they aren't talking.
Regardless of what happens on selection Sunday, even if Auburn is disappointed, this season must be considered a success. Picked to finish last in the West, the Tigers finished second. They've won 20 games. Counting Friday's victory, they've won nine SEC games and lost eight. It's been a bumpy ride, but a basketball season is a marathon, not a sprint. In the best conference in the country, Auburn has done enough to merit a bid. And it certainly has done enough to erase any doubt about whether Cliff Ellis will return as head coach. The decision was made well before Friday night by those who make such decisions that Ellis was safe. It would be difficult to rationally come to any other conclusion.
If Auburn gets the invitation it deserves, that will be three trips to the big show in five years. Outside of Kentucky, and maybe Florida, there's not a school in the league where that would get a coach in trouble. An example: If Georgia had gone to the NCAA Tournament this season it would have been the first time in school history the Bulldogs had made it three straight years. The only thing that could threaten Ellis‚ return would be unexpected trouble with the NCAA's investigation of Auburn's program. And it doesn't look like that's going to happen. In fact, the all clear could come any day now.
Friday's victory over Tennessee wasn't always a thing of beauty. The Tigers missed some open shots in close. They had some unforced turnovers. But in the battle of wills that is often college basketball, Auburn was in control all night. Tennessee made some runs, got within four on a couple of occasions, but the Tigers had an answer every time. They played hard-nosed, in-your-face defense. They frustrated Ron Slay, the SEC Player of the Year. They made free throws. They hit shots when it mattered most.
And now comes mighty Kentucky. The Wildcats toyed with Vanderbilt on Friday. They could have named the score. They have now won 17 consecutive games against SEC teams, one of the more remarkable accomplishments in league history. The hottest team in the league, other than Kentucky, is LSU. The Bayou Bengals, who were once 1-6 in the SEC, are playing at a level that could take them deep into the NCAA Tournament. Of course, that doesn't stop their coach, John Brady, from whining at every opportunity about some perceived slight.
LSU and Mississippi State will play the first semi-final game today, and it should be something to see. LSU's problem is that it is the only team remaining that played on the first day. That's normally not a big problem in the second game. By the third game, it can start to take a toll. My guess is that Mississippi State will end LSU's seven-game winning streak and play Kentucky for the championship on Sunday. The winner? Kentucky by 10.