After his team finished the regular season with a victory at LSU on Saturday night, Auburn coach Tony Barbee gushed: “I know this. There are a lot of teams in the conference that are heading to Atlanta saying, ‘I hope we don’t match up with that Auburn team.’”
As it turns out, the first team that will match up with Auburn in the SEC men’s basketball tournament is Georgia, which will play the Tigers at 1 p.m. Thursday in the Georgia Dome.
Tournament pairings were set Sunday afternoon, when Kentucky’s 64-58 victory at Tennessee finalized the SEC East seeds. The win clinched second place in the division for Kentucky (10-6 in the league, three games behind runaway East winner Florida) and left Georgia and Vanderbilt (both 9-7) in a tie for third place. Georgia is the division’s No. 4 seed because of two regular-season losses to Vanderbilt.
The Bulldogs thus open the conference tournament against the No. 5 seed from the Western Division, an Auburn team that finished 11-19 overall and 4-12 in the SEC but lifted the spirits of its coach and players with back-to-back wins over Ole Miss and LSU to close the regular season. Georgia beat Auburn 81-72 on Feb. 5 in Athens, but had to go into overtime to do it.
The winner of Thursday’s Georgia-Auburn game — the tournament opener — will face Alabama, the SEC West’s No. 1 seed, in a quarterfinal at 1 p.m. on Friday. Either way, that quarterfinal will be an enticing matchup — a meeting of arch-rivals or a hasty rematch of a regular-season finale in which Alabama beat Georgia 65-57 in Tuscaloosa.
Other first-round pairings Thursday have South Carolina (the No. 6 East seed) vs. Ole Miss (No. 3 West) at 3:30 p.m., Tennessee (No. 5 East) vs. Arkansas (No. 4 West) at 7:30 p.m. and LSU (No. 6 West) vs. Vanderbilt (No. 3 East) at 10 p.m.
The South Carolina-Ole Miss winner will face Kentucky, the East’s No. 2 seed, at 3:30 p.m. Friday, followed at 7:30 p.m. by the Tennessee-Arkansas winner vs. East No. 1 Florida at 7:30 p.m. and the LSU-Vanderbilt winner vs. West No. 2 Mississippi State at 10 p.m.
By tying Vanderbilt for third place in the Eastern Division, Georgia broke a seven-year streak of finishing fifth or sixth in the regular-season standings.
As of Sunday, “bracketologists” were debating whether the Bulldogs (20-10 overall) already have done enough to secure a bid from the NCAA tournament selection committee, or whether they might need another victory or two in the SEC tournament to reach the Big Dance. CollegeRPI.com’s Jerry Palm was projecting Georgia as a No. 9 NCAA seed despite Saturday’s loss at Alabama, while ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi had the Bulldogs narrowly missing the 68-team field.
Georgia coach Mark Fox made his case via Twitter on Sunday afternoon: “Regular season complete. Committee always talks body of work. 20-10, top 40 RPI & SOS, winning record in SEC & on road, no bad losses.”
Georgia ranks No. 40 in the RPI and No. 38 in strength of schedule.
“Coach always tells us don’t worry about it,” Georgia forward Trey Thompkins said of the NCAA tournament talk. “As far as our team goes, we just know we have the SEC tournament [this] week.”