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Is it as simple as Auburn basketball needing just one more win to win the SEC?
AUBURN, Ala. — As unbelievable as it sounds, with three games left in the SEC schedule, Auburn basketball fans are talking about championship-clinching scenarios.
Auburn (12-3) has a two-game lead on second-place Tennessee (10-5) in the SEC with three games left to play. Tennessee plays at Ole Miss at noon CT Saturday. Auburn visits Florida at 7:30 p.m. CT.
If Tennessee loses to Ole Miss, Auburn will clinch at least a share of the SEC championship before stepping onto the floor in Gainesville. Even if Auburn loses to Florida and then Arkansas and South Carolina next week, the Volunteers could only tie the Tigers at 12-6 if they lose one more game.
It’s a scenario that Bruce Pearl knows, but he says he’s not focusing on it.
“I think at this point, you’ve got to look at the leaderboard a little bit,” Pearl said Thursday. “And I don’t know whether it’s just my routine or I’ve not done it all year long, I don’t know when they play. I can’t worry about that. I’ve got to worry about our team trying to get better.”
“At least a share” is key here, though. A Tennessee loss or Auburn win Saturday doesn’t clinch an outright SEC title.
Even though Auburn beat Tennessee in Knoxville in January, the Tigers and Vols would be co-champions if they finish tied atop the league standings. Tiebreakers would only matter for seeding purposes at the SEC Tournament in two weeks.
While Auburn would have a legitimate claim to an outright title if it finished with the same record as Tennessee, that’s not how it works by SEC rules. In order for Auburn to clinch an outright championship in the SEC’s eyes, the magic number is two — a combination of Auburn wins or Tennessee losses — for the last three games.
But thanks to that win over Tennessee, there wouldn’t be any dispute about an Auburn SEC championship if it gets one more victory. And it’ll be a prize that Pearl savors.
“As I’ve said before, the prize of a regular-season conference championship is probably every coach’s dream,” Pearl said. “I know everybody pays attention to March and to the victor goes the spoils in the postseason and tournament play, I get all that. But as a coach and a grinder and a teacher, the treasure of a regular-season championship, you can’t compare it.”
Pearl has a great point. In order to take a national championship, a team has to win six straight games across three weekends in March. It’s an exciting way to determine a champion, but it’s not the most logical way.
The SEC Tournament title is similar — it can get a bubble team into the NCAA Tournament through the automatic bid process, but the real champion will be determined over 18 conference games.
Winning a regular-season title puts a team in the best position for an improved seed in March, but that shouldn’t overshadow a conference crown. Plenty of great teams play in the NCAA Tournament. Only a few go in as power-conference champions.
“If you do that, you put yourself in a position based on your seeding to have an opportunity to advance in March,” Pearl said. “So [the regular-season title is] something we want real badly.”
But it’s not a guarantee. Auburn has to avoid going 0-3 down the stretch against three teams that are capable of beating the Tigers.
“It’s not going to come easy,” Pearl said. “At Florida, at Arkansas, home against a South Carolina team that absolutely dominated us like no other team in this league has… we’ll take it one game at a time.”
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