Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Just win, baby

Hey, we can be honest about this--a 63-58 win over a team barely over .500 in the SEC probably doesn't help Auburn's standing in those computer rankings I mentioned last time out. It probably won't give Auburn much of a boost in the weekly polls. (Though to be fair, with only UConn and Oklahoma currently ahead of them, they've probably hit their ceiling on that front.) It's not the sort of win that announces "We're ready to challenge the Huskies or Sooners." All it is is a win.

But it's a win that any team that wasn't truly great probably wasn't coming home with. The Bulldogs fell behind repeatedly and kept bullying their way back into it. They were playing at home. They're not a bad team at all--42nd in today's RPI. Auburn is now the proud wearer of the league's biggest bullseye and when you've won 22 games already, sometimes the odds are that you'll shoot just poorly enough or not get enough caroms off the rim or have just enough calls go the other way and you'll drop one. Not to mention State grabbed 14 offensive rebounds to Auburn's 9, hit five more 3's than the Tigers, held Bonner to 7-of-18 shooting from the field, and most surprisingly flipped Boddie's assist-to-turnover ratio into the negatives (at 3-to-6).

And still, with 1:03 left, Bonner hit a layup for a two-point lead, and in the dying seconds Auburn went 6-of-6 from the line. And they won, and now they're essentially one win in Nashville away from sealing a 28-1 regular season, an outright SEC title, and quite possibly a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

That win won't be easy. The 'Dores sit at 9-2 in the SEC, so a loss Thursday would give Vandy the league lead on the head-to-head tiebreaker. But hey--Vandy already went to Starkville. They returned with a 66-61 loss. Which is why seeing Auburn come back with a win, no matter what the score, is just more proof of what a phenomenal team Nell Fortner has put together this season.

Of course, some scores are a little more impressive. Like, say, thumping Miss. St. 91-76. Welcome to .500ville, gentlemen. We're hoping your stay will last a bit longer than your previous visits. Keep shooting 24-of-32 from the free throw line (ah, pipe dreams) and maybe it will be.

This was a massive win for Auburn for three reasons:

1) LSU's obviously run away with the West title, but there's a real, tangible benefit to catching and passing State for the division's runner-up spot: a conference tournament bye. Georgia's miracle run last year notwithstanding, Auburn's odds of sneaking a surprise SEC auto-bid (far from out of the question given how relentlessly inconsistent the top half of the league has been) increase exponentially if they only have to win three games in three days rather than four in four. Pipping the Bulldogs for second won't be easy--State has already played both of their games against LSU, while Auburn still has to face the Bayou Bengals both home-and-away--but sitting only a game back, it's a possibility.

2) Winning by that kind of margin signifies that the brief doldrums that resulted in the (still inexcusable) home loss to Vandy and no-show on the road at Ole Miss are probably behind them. Auburn's creeping back to where they were in the Pomeroy ratings before that loss to the 'Dores: not a challenger to the league's top 5 teams just yet, but a serious threat to become the best of the rest.

3) No beating around the bush: a winning SEC record and a couple of wins in the SEC tourney probably saves Jeff Lebo's job. There's still a long way to go--four road games in their final six for a team that's always hated the road says something about exactly how long--but it's in sight, at least.

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