Auburn or Tennessee? SEC title chase comes down to final day
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — One of the most improbable Southeastern Conference title chases in league history is coming down to the final day of the regular season.
No. 14 Auburn hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2003 for the longest drought of any SEC team, yet the Tigers are one win away from clinching at least a share of the league championship. Auburn is tied for first place with Tennessee, which was picked before the season to finish next-to-last in the league standings.
“That’s why you play the game,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “Let’s let these kids decide. Don’t put a crown on anybody before you get out there and actually put the balls out there and see what’s up. That’s what we’ve done all season long, and that’s what Tennessee has done.”
Auburn (24-6, 12-5 SEC) hosts South Carolina (16-14, 7-10) on Saturday while Tennessee (22-7, 12-5) hosts Georgia (16-13, 7-10). If there’s a tie for first place, Auburn would get the No. 1 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament by virtue of its 94-84 victory at Tennessee on Jan. 2.
“What I think it means is that we’ve got a group of guys who worked hard,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “They believed when a lot of people outside probably didn’t believe. They’ve done the work. It hasn’t been easy. It’s not easy for anybody.”
This would mark Auburn’s first SEC regular-season title since 1999. Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC since 2008, when Pearl was coaching the Vols. Pearl is seeking to become the first coach to lead two SEC schools to league titles since Eddie Fogler coached Vanderbilt to the 1993 championship and South Carolina to the 1997 crown.
Pearl directed Tennessee to NCAA Tournament berths in each of his six seasons at Tennessee but was fired in 2011 amid an NCAA investigation that resulted in a three-year show-cause penalty for the coach. Pearl landed at Auburn as his penalty expired, and Auburn has produced a breakthrough season in the third year of his tenure.
Auburn’s faced plenty of adversity along the way.
Center Austin Wiley and forward Danjel Purifoy have been held out all season amid a federal investigation into former associate head coach Chuck Person , who faces bribery, fraud and conspiracy charges. Two support staffers have also been on leave this season.
Auburn suffered another blow Feb. 17 when center Anfernee McLemore fractured and dislocated his left ankle , knocking the SEC shot-blocking leader out for the rest of the season. Auburn has lost three of its last four games .
The Tigers vow they’ll bounce back against South Carolina, which beat Auburn 84-75 last month .
“We’ve got to stop looking at the end goal, and we’ve just got to look at what we used to look at, like we have to win this game,” Auburn forward Desean Murray said. “We’re going to take care of business Saturday. We’ve got to come thinking about Saturday and thinking about just that win.”
While Auburn is sliding, Tennessee is surging.
The Vols have won three straight and 10 of their last 12 games. Now the Vols just need to solve Georgia, which has beaten Tennessee five straight times .
“Our team is starting to get it rolling,” Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield said Tuesday after a 76-54 triumph at Mississippi State . “We’re maturing.”
Tennessee has reached the NCAA Tournament just once in the six seasons since Pearl’s exit but has assured itself of a bid this year. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes has built a winning program without a single player who was rated as a top-125 prospect according to a composite ranking of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports .
The SEC’s preseason media poll had Auburn finishing ninth and Tennessee 13th out of 14 teams. Now at least one of them will win the league title.
“I think that the common denominator (is) both those teams play hard,” Pearl said. “Both those teams are never out. They bring it every night, and I think that’s what’s allowed Auburn and Tennessee to sort of survive the grind of the best conference in college basketball, with (this being) the best the SEC has been in I don’t know how many years, bottom to top.”
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Auburn, Alabama, contributed to this report.
More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25