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Auburn coach Bruce Pearl helped the Tigers cut down the nets Saturday as SEC champions.

Bruce Pearl: Auburn basketball’s SEC title ‘means more’ because of league’s strength

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AUBURN, Ala. — Bruce Pearl wasn’t doing an ad read for the conference Saturday evening after Auburn basketball’s 79-70 win over South Carolina.

It could have served as one, though. The Tigers had just won their first SEC title in 19 years, and Pearl said it held greater weight because of the competition they faced.

“To win the league wire-to-wire, in the year when this league … I don’t know if any of you have seen it better, top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top … is a tremendous accomplishment,” Pearl said. “This championship means more in 2018 because of how great our league is.”

It just means more, right?

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It actually does. Auburn won a share of the SEC regular-season title and the No. 1 seed at the conference’s tournament this week in St. Louis in what might be league’s best-ever basketball season.

The SEC has never sent more than six teams to the NCAA Tournament. That mark has been set nine times, but the most recent one came in 2008.

Right now, the composite projections at Bracket Matrix have eight SEC teams getting into the 2018 NCAA Tournament — Auburn, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Missouri and Alabama.

The Crimson Tide’s spot is in serious jeopardy, though, with five straight losses heading into St. Louis. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports didn’t have Alabama on his radar when he published his newest bracket Monday morning.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi did, though. He has the SEC tied with the Big 12 and the ACC in sending the most teams to the NCAA Tournament this year. The SEC’s projected eight is twice as many as the Big Ten and Pac-12’s four. The tables have turned in the landscape of power conference basketball.

That leads into the SEC Tournament, where at least one team will be fighting for its NCAA Tournament life. Seven others will compete for improved standing in the bracket, as Tennessee’s Rick Barnes noted Monday:

Six other teams know that a Cinderella run to a tournament title — think of what Georgia did 10 years ago in the “Tornado Tournament” — would mean a ticket to the Big Dance.

“The thing about the SEC is that there is no team in this league that is an automatic win,” Pearl said last week. “It’s incredible how good this league is from top to bottom.”

Parity has defined this season in the SEC. Two games separate the No. 4 seed from the No. 10 seed in the conference tournament. The stage is set for some early March Madness.

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“It is crazy,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said Saturday. “Who knows what will happen? If fans don’t understand that every game in this league is like this game, then I don’t know what else us coaches can do to make this league better. Right now, you have high-level basketball by every single team in this league. That is going to make for a great conference tournament.

“Going into [Saturday], Kentucky was playing better than anyone and lost by 18 or whatever on the road. Auburn, the way they play, they are hard to deal with. Vanderbilt is a good team. You just look at their record and say they stink. No, they don’t. They’re really good. They have seniors.”

Just reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years and winning a conference title for the first time in nearly two decades will be enough to make this one of the best seasons in Auburn basketball history.

And the degree of difficulty in this season’s SEC should make it even greater.