Auburn basketball is still 'win and in'... for now.
No one in college basketball can help their NCAA Tournament resume more than the Tigers. But it's a limited window of opportunity.
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
It’s been a while, but Bruce Pearl has lived on the NCAA Tournament bubble before.
At Auburn, Pearl’s Tigers have made the Big Dance comfortably in all three of their previous trips: a No. 4 seed in 2018, a No. 5 seed in 2019, and a No. 2 seed last March. Even in the postseason that was cut short due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Auburn was projected to be a No. 5 seed.
You have to go back to Pearl’s time at Tennessee. In 2009, his Volunteers made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 9 seed after winning three of their last four regular-season games and knocking off both Auburn and Alabama in the SEC Tournament.
Two years later, Tennessee got back into the tournament as a No. 9 seed, having dropped six of its last nine in the regular season but having beaten Arkansas in the SEC Tournament.
But his previous experiences on the bubble don’t compare to the one that his Auburn team faces right now, with just one week left in the regular season.
And what a week it is: A road game against projected overall No. 1 seed and bitter rival Alabama on Wednesday, followed by a home game against projected No. 3 seed Tennessee in the regular-season finale.
Both are monster Quadrant 1 games for the NET rankings, where the Tigers currently sit at No. 36. A road win at NET No. 2 Alabama is, quite literally, the second-biggest resume booster possible. And Tennessee is at No. 3 in those same rankings.
“It's a great opportunity for us, because as I look at it, winning one of these next two games puts us in position where we'd be a lock to make the tournament,” Pearl said Tuesday. “I've been in situations in other years where there's nothing left on the schedule to really get you over the hump, that really can get you in. And then you have to hope that somebody else loses.
“Well, we don't have that situation. We are still in control of our own destiny.”
Throughout the season, Pearl makes it a point to be very clear with his players on what they’re facing. And this week is no different.
“I'm going to go through the scenarios today of what winning two means, what winning one means, what losing two means,” Pearl said. “Just always put it out there so the guys understand. You never want to look back and have them be in any sort of a doubt.”
The NCAA Tournament bubble changes every day, with meaningful games happening throughout the week. So let’s take an updated look at what the Tigers’ scenarios are, thanks to the bracket projections at T-Rank:
Beat Alabama and Tennessee: 97.5% chance of bid, projected No. 6 seed
Beat Alabama, lose to Tennessee: 91.9% chance of bid, projected No. 8 seed
Lose to Alabama and Tennessee: 62.2% chance of bid, projected No. 11 seed
Depending on what happens during the final week of the season, Auburn has a chance to finish anywhere between No. 3 and No. 7 in the SEC standings.
Either a No. 3 or a No. 4 seed would mean the Tigers get a double-bye in Nashville and won’t play until Friday. Anywhere below that means Auburn has to play on Thursday against a low-rated team that either needed to play on Wednesday night or isn’t projected to make the NCAA Tournament.
“We have an idea of who we could play in the first game, one way or the other,” Pearl said. “Typically, the first game, it's not going to be an opponent that could put you in (the NCAA Tournament). But it's definitely an opponent that could put you out. So we have a chance to play two opponents that could get us in, right here, right now. Go into the SEC tournament, lose and you're done.
“But win, and you may not still be in. You can't win yourself in, maybe, with that first-round opponent.”