AUBURN, Ala. (AP) -The Auburn Tigers have won eight of their last nine games, become the nation's fastest rising team and brushed aside regular-season Southeastern Conference champion LSU by 16 points.
All that has likely not secured Auburn a spot in the NCAA tournament.
But it has made putting Auburn and NCAA tournament in the same sentence anything but laughable for the first time in awhile.
The Tigers (21-10, 10-6) had to become the SEC's hottest team to join the NCAA conversation.
``We were in a situation where the only way we could even get any mention of it is to win just about every game coming down the stretch for a whole month,'' Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. ``Our kids have put themselves, with an unbelievable month of February and into March, in a situation where we're being talked about right now.''
) has vaulted 33 spots, Oregon State (153) 19 and LSU 15 (37).
While that rating is still squarely in bubble territory, the Tigers enter the SEC tournament as legitimate candidates for an at-large berth for the first time in Lebo's five seasons. After a first-round bye, they face the Florida-Arkansas winner Friday night.
Lebo has started becoming a more vocal lobbyist for his team but even he thinks Auburn has to have some success in the little dance to make the big one. That doesn't necessarily mean he agrees with that status.
``It's hard to get in the tournament,'' said Lebo, whose team has won four in a row. ``People don't realize how hard it is to get in. At-large, there's just not that many spots and there's a lot of teams vying for it. How you can tell the difference from those last couple is beyond me. I've always been a proponent of trying to make it bigger.
``From where we were in February, we've had the hardest (road), I think, of anybody. We've had the longest way to go. We're still, according to everybody else, not there yet.''
Lebo's team made a believer out of LSU coach Trent Johnson, whose 20th-ranked Tigers fell 69-53 at Auburn on Saturday. Most of the talk about SEC bubble teams has focused on the likes of Florida and Kentucky.
should be a bubble team. I know this: They handled us as well as anybody has all year long.''
The Tigers have won six games during the hot streak by double-digit margins. They have done it with defense, yielding a league-low 64.2 points per game. They've done it with the emergence of sharp-shooting junior college transfer Tay Waller - who ranks behind only Kentucky's Jodie Meeks in 3-pointers made in the SEC - and freshman Frankie Sullivan. Plus, the starting lineup includes three seniors and two juniors.
The team's tallest starter, 6-foot-7 Korvotney Barber, has spearheaded an outsized rebounding effort. Barber grabbed 34 rebounds in wins over Alabama and LSU last week to earn SEC player of the week honors.
Auburn's resume certainly wasn't looking NCAA-worthy before the hot streak. The Tigers were coming off a 78-59 loss at Mississippi and had also fallen to Dayton, Northern Iowa and Mercer.
The biggest nonconference win: 58-56 over Virginia, which is 4-12 in the ACC - same as Auburn finished a year ago in the SEC.
At one point, the Tigers were 3-4.
``We were always a good team,'' top reserve Lucas Hargrove said. ``We just had to get our stuff together, get on a roll. At the beginning of the season, we weren't jelling quite right and now everything's all come together.''
against Northern Iowa and Dayton. Barrett had 27 points against the Volunteers.
``One guy can make a big difference for you, and Rasheem's a 1,300-pint scorer in his career at Auburn, a double-figure guy,'' Lebo said. ``Not having him early, from an offensive standpoint more than anything, really hurt our team and set us back in the backcourt. We were obviously a very different team.''
Lebo has instructed his players to steer away from the NCAA talk, preferring to handle the lobbying himself.
Asked what he would say to the tournament selection committee, Hargrove responded: ``I would say we've worked very, very hard this season. We're in the SEC. We have a winning record. You can see the resume. Our play speaks for itself.''
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