Tigers expecting a tourney bid

March, 10, 2009
Auburn expects to get an NCAA tournament bid.

The Tigers look at the numbers. And if you're in their world it's hard to argue. Auburn has won eight of nine games. The Tigers just smacked the SEC's best team, LSU, by 16 points. Auburn finished the SEC with a 10-6 record, 21-10 overall.

But not everyone agrees. Auburn is hardly a discussion point among locks, let alone strong bubble teams because of a nonconference that is devoid of a quality win.

"I think the biggest thing is that [the players] have been reading some stuff blowing them off and it has bothered them," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. "To not even be in the discussion has been a slap in the face to us and to our league."

Lebo isn't totally naive. He said the Tigers had to beat LSU on Saturday to make the case. Beat LSU handily, and he said then the argument could be made.

"How do I tell the difference between Penn State and Auburn? I've watched Penn State three or four times. How do these people know?" Lebo said.

Lebo said the SEC is getting a bad rap. That's understandable. All SEC coaches are going to defend the league, especially this week. Lebo's defense lies with the injuries to Ole Miss, Trent Johnson getting adjusted to LSU earlier in the season, transitions going on at Tennessee with new players, and development at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.

"I don't agree that the league is down," Lebo said. "I fail to believe that the league is as bad as what everyone is saying. We're young."

Auburn's issues earlier in the season, according to Lebo, rest with the groin injury to Rasheem Barrett. He was out until late December and missed three games, including a loss to Mercer. Barrett is averaging 11.9 points in SEC games. He played limited minutes early in the season in losses to Northern Iowa and Dayton and averaged just 2.7 points in Auburn's first six games of the season when the Tigers were 3-3. Auburn lost to Mercer and then dropped three games in a row to Dayton, Northern Iowa on a neutral court and at Xavier. The best nonconference win is at Virginia. Auburn did beat SEC East champ Tennessee as well as the West's top team, LSU.

The Tigers' defense is improving, holding LSU to just 53 points. Auburn is a fun watch, too, with high-fliers on the court led by Korvotney Barber and a shooter in Tay Waller.

The one thing that irks Lebo is how Florida's NCAA chances are hinging on knocking off Auburn in a potential quarterfinal game.

"What's odd is that a month ago we were a bad loss and now we're a quality win? We've flipped from one to the other. It's odd," Lebo said.

Another issue for Auburn is its lack of exposure. The Tigers had one nationally televised game against Alabama last Tuesday, a game they won in Tuscaloosa.

"We haven't had national television and the perception is that if Auburn is good then the SEC must be down," Lebo said. "Kentucky not being as good also hurts the league. That's the perception."

Still, if Lebo can get the Tigers to the NCAAs, which could happen with a win over Florida in the quarterfinals and then possibly Tennessee in the semifinals, it would be an "unbelievable story, a dream come true for the seniors, a feel-good story for college basketball." It certainly wouldn't hurt for Lebo. Lebo is in his fifth season at Auburn and this is the first time the Tigers are within a sniff of getting an NCAA bid.

"We're a tough matchup the way we're playing," Lebo said. "We shoot the basketball well, beat you off the bounce and are defending well. It's all about matchups and if we get the right one we could certainly win a game or two in the tournament."

• Tulsa's case rests on one path toward an at-large: beat UAB in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament and lose in a close game to Memphis.

"We have to get to the championship game," Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik said. "But we have to play UAB. We both need each other to win and play each other in the semifinals, which would give us both a good RPI game and winner of that game could play Memphis with a chance to get an at-large berth."

Not sure I'm buying the UAB case at 21-10, 11-5. But Tulsa might have more of a claim with a win over Texas A&M, a better record at 22-9 and a league mark at 12-4 and a buzzer-beating loss to Memphis at home when Antonio Anderson converted a layup.

Tulsa has won 14 of the past 18 games with two of those losses coming against Memphis. In the three losses to Tulane, Central Florida and Ohio, 7-foot center Jerome Jordan fouled out early in the game. Tulsa has a record of 5-6 against top-100 RPI teams with three of those losses coming against top-seven teams Oklahoma and Memphis.

The win over the Aggies is something the Golden Hurricane are showing around like a prized trophy.

But the perception that Memphis doesn't get competition in Conference USA irks Wojcik.

"People think Memphis ran away with it," Wojcik said of the 16-0 Tigers.

Memphis coach John Calipari agrees that the Tigers were fortunate to win at Tulsa and have been tested, despite not losing a game.

"Why should the winners of the Mountain West and Atlantic 10 get in with 12-4 records? We went to Charlotte and won by 15 yet Charlotte beat Dayton and Xavier at home," Wojcik said. "Why should I be penalized for a bad loss at Tulane and those teams not penalized for losing at Charlotte?"

Wojcik added to the chorus of coaches who don't understand why the MWC gets a break for its league champs finishing 12-4 (all three that tied for the title -- Utah, BYU and New Mexico -- still have to get the bids although many assume all are in the field).

BYU did go to Tulsa and win, though.

"They beat us and I give them credit," Wojcik said.

But Wojcik does understand that for Tulsa to have any shot, the Golden Hurricane have to play in the final against host Memphis as well as they did when the Tigers beat them on a last-second shot.

• Home court is proving to be decisive so far in conference tournaments. VCU won in Richmond. Siena won in Albany. East Tennessee State won in its own state, in Nashville, over Jacksonville. Radford won the Big South at home while Chattanooga won the Southern Conference at home. We'll see if that trend continues later this week with Binghamton hosting the America East final; Weber State hosting the Big Sky; Memphis hosting Conference USA; UNLV hosting the MWC; Nevada hosting the WAC; Robert Morris hosting the NEC; and American hosting the Patriot.

• Siena earned the automatic berth to the NIT by virtue of winning the MAAC. That is now moot because of its conference tournament title. Niagara deserves a postseason appearance and a second-place finish should be good enough for the NIT.

• The CAA tournament continues to be dominated by its southern brethren. A northern team -- Northeastern, Drexel, Hofstra or Towson -- still hasn't won the event since moving over from the America East.

• Enter Anthony Grant in the hot coaching candidate pool in April. Grant was viable for the SEC openings at Alabama and Georgia even if VCU didn't make the field. But earning an NCAA berth and a legitimate chance to win a game make him much more of a news conference hit.

• Saint Mary's will need to get the word out on its results in Friday's added game against Eastern Washington. The Gaels played well in the semifinal win over Portland but were overmatched Monday night in the WCC final loss to Gonzaga. Australian Olympic guard Patty Mills was 5-of-28, 2-of-16 on 3s in the two games in Las Vegas -- his first two games back in a month after suffering a broken right hand. Mills also had only five assists to six turnovers. Mills moved well up and down and laterally so his conditioning wasn't an issue. But clearly his shot is off after missing so much time with the injury. The Gaels, at 25-6, will be an interesting test case for the selection committee to see how they view a player who did come back from an injury but wasn't playing at the same level as when he went out (he scored 18 points in 17 first-half minutes against Gonzaga before getting hurt on Jan. 29).

• I saw five of perhaps the top 10 contenders for the national title over the weekend in Pittsburgh, Morgantown and Chapel Hill. Pitt is the best among Connecticut, North Carolina, Louisville and Duke and my new favorite to win the national title, even without seeing the bracket. Senior Sam Young is an extremely tough matchup on the wing with his ability to score facing the basket or with his back to the basket, and he runs the floor like a wide receiver. He can catch anything as long as Levance Fields gives him a wink that it's coming. Fields isn't the quickest, but he's a savvy point guard who is showing toughness by playing with pain. DeJuan Blair can play with any big man in America. Tyrell Biggs is a consummate unselfish role player. Jermaine Dixon can make shots. And the bench is deep enough with a scorer in Brad Wanamaker and a solid reserve in Ashton Gibbs who doesn't make many mistakes.

• I was at Bob Huggins' Midnight Madness at Kansas State. I've seen Huggs countless times in Cincinnati. But Huggs just seems to be in the right place at the right time in West Virginia. He fits Morgantown. He also seems to be beloved and there's no question with the recruiting going well that Huggs will keep the Mountaineers relevant and in the NCAAs for as long as he stays at his alma mater. Huggs has been fortunate to be at two schools that have the two most regal stars from the 1950s in the Big O (Oscar Robertson) from Cincinnati and the Logo (Jerry West) from West Virginia. Both schools have statues of their iconic figures outside their respective arenas.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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