Auburn might lose to Tennessee today in the SEC tournament semifinals, and if they do the Tigers may well be shoved off the bubble before they were every truly acknowledged as being on it. Understood.
But for the past three weeks or so Jeff Lebo’s team, more so than any other team in the country, has represented what I think is a very important idea: All any team can do is play the schedule they have and win. (Memphis, of course, is swimming against this same current, albeit from a much better part of the river.) To dismiss a team out of hand because they didn’t have Pitt or North Carolina on their schedule in February (”Hey, who has Auburn beaten?”) is worse than fatuous, it’s monarchical. If that’s going to be our criterion let’s just send out a letter on January 31 telling the vast majority of teams: Sorry, ain’t gonna happen. We looked at your remaining schedule and, hey, where are the quality wins going to be? At (snort) Mississippi State? At home against Tennessee or (cackle) LSU? Not good enough.
I’m not saying Auburn deserves a bid; that’s a comparative judgment, not a normative one. I am saying Auburn deserves a look.
So I looked last night, and watched the Tigers edge Florida 61-58 in the SEC quarters, a bubble vs. bubble game along the lines of Thursday’s collision in the Mountain West between San Diego State and UNLV. In the first half the Gators’ match-up zone looked surprisingly active for a team that on paper has merely an average defense. Truth be told Auburn couldn’t do much with that zone in the half-court, nor could their undersized interior D do much to stop Alex Tyus. There was a direct correlation in the opening period between Florida misses and Tiger makes on the other end, as Auburn’s Korvotney Barber cleared the defensive glass and Frankie Sullivan pushed the pace. In the second half Lebo’s team started dribbling into the gaps in that zone. It was enough, barely.
Florida, much like Creighton and New Mexico, now has to wait and see what happens after being knocked out of their conference tournament earlier than expected. Nick Calathes had a wretched game, going 3-of-13 from the field and missing two big free throws late. Even when he’s struggling, however, Calathes has that Deron Williams air of calm intelligence at high velocity. Not to mention he recorded 11 defensive boards on a night when nothing was falling for him on offense. Were I a GM at the next level, I would take that as a very good indication of this player’s motor.
As for Auburn, they’re not a big team, but between Barber and Lucas Hargrove they actually fared surprisingly well on the defensive glass in SEC play. Their weakness is perimeter shooting. If they overcame that weakness against a zone D like Florida’s, maybe they can overcome the “Who have you beaten?” presumption. But they haven’t done it yet and the Volunteers stand astride that path.