SEC Tournament Bracket is Set—Who Will Be Auburn’s First Opponent?
Could Auburn be facing Alabama in their first game of the SEC Tournament? The Tigers trounced Alabama 91-70 in their last meeting. (photo: Julie Bennett/al.com)
Auburn did exactly what it needed to do Saturday to win the SEC regular season championship. The Tigers knocked off South Carolina at Auburn Arena, finishing up what has essentially been a percale season. After Anfernee McLemore experienced a season ending injury in Auburn’s first game against Carolina in Columbia, Auburn lost three of four games without him, and things were looking bleak for the Tigers.
It wasn’t just losing McLemore’s shot blocking, timely three pointers, or above-the-rim stuffs that hurt Auburn. It was poor play everywhere else. The three losses, which included back-to-back losses, allowed Tennessee to climb back into the SEC race after Auburn had dominated the standings all year.
By the time Saturday’s contests rolled around, Auburn needed a Volunteer loss on top of a win to claim sole ownership. Again, no one is debating just how awesome this season has been, especially with the FBI probe that cost Chuck Person his job and likely will land him in jail, but the probe also cost Auburn two starters before the first tip took place. It was a totally Auburn thing to have such a season and still not end up as sole owners of the SEC championship. It felt a lot like football season. Auburn knocked off its two biggest rivals but had no answers down the stretch and, eventually, those teams played for the national title.
There’s still a lot of basketball left to play, but Auburn’s wilting down the stretch not only caused it to share the SEC crown but also has the Tigers taking on the winner of the Texas A&M Aggies/Alabama Crimson Tide game in the quarter finals. Of course that has nothing to do with Auburn’s record, just a bad draw. The winner of the quarter-final game gets the Kentucky Wildcats, assuming the ‘Cats can avoid a one-and-done showing. Meanwhile, Tennessee, in the two hole, gets the winner of the LSU/Mississippi State game with that winner getting Florida. Most SEC basketball fans would rather have Tennessee’s bracket.
That isn’t to say that the Aggies and the Tide are the best teams in the SEC, but these two teams own two of the six total losses the Tigers accumulated in the 2017–2018 season. They absolutely dominated Auburn and brought out the worst in the Tigers. The two teams just played last Saturday afternoon, with Alabama completing a losing season and Texas A&M being elevated to a winning SEC record. The Aggies aren’t nearly as talented as the Tide, but they play well on the inside where Auburn has been beyond suspect even with McLemore. The Tide, on the other hand, are now fighting just to make the NCAA tournament and need at least one win to avoid the NIT.
The Tide will look to Colin Sexton, who controls Alabama’s future. Bama has been abysmal down the stretch, and some have speculated that Sexton is laying low in preparation for the draft. It is possible that he may not play in the NIT, but he almost certainly would want to show up in the NCAA tournament to improve his draft stock. So, he may elevate his game now that the day-to-day grind of the SEC schedule is done. Additionally, Avery Johnson is looking down the barrel of a losing SEC season. A loss in the first game, and an NIT bid might be tough for Alabama fans to swallow.
Auburn has to start hot in the tournament, especially since the Tigers have played from behind in almost every game since McLemore’s injury. Bryce Brown and Auburn’s sharp-shooters have been awful in the first half of the last few games, so getting off to a quick start is imperative.
What the Tigers need is to follow Chuma Okeke’s example. He was the lynchpin in Saturday’s SEC Championship win, and his hustle and energy showed everywhere on the court. Perhaps Bruce Pearl’s change in strategy to allow him to play early and often was the key. Okeke has been first off the bench most of the season and is possibly the most versatile player on the team. He can’t be treated as a freshman any longer, and his ability to spread the floor only helps the Tigers. Expect him to be showcased on Saturday at noon as the Tigers take on the winners of the Tide/Aggie contest.