AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers are in an utterly unfamiliar position.
The 10th-ranked Tigers enter the final few weeks of the regular season chasing a Southeastern Conference title and a high NCAA Tournament seed. They’re right about where Kentucky, which visits Auburn Arena Wednesday night, usually is this time of year.
“We’re not used to it,” Auburn forward Desean Murray said. “We’ve been playing well. We’ve just got to keep our heads focused and we’ve just got to stay hungry and we’ve just got to keep coming to play.”
Auburn (22-3, 10-2 SEC) has a two-game lead over No. 18 Tennessee, which the Tigers beat , and Florida.
The Tigers, whose only SEC titles came in 1960 and 1999, visit the Gators on Feb. 24.
But the pivotal stretch run begins with Kentucky (17-8, 6-6), which has lost three straight games. The Wildcats have won 19 of the last 20 meetings with Auburn, but this isn’t the typical Auburn team.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee seeded the Tigers No. 2 and fifth overall in a mock bracket on Sunday. Auburn is currently seventh in the NCAA’s RPI.
Pretty good for a program that hasn’t made the field since 2003. The Tigers’ closing schedule includes road trips to South Carolina, Florida and Arkansas. Kentucky, Alabama and the Gamecocks visit Auburn.
“I don’t think we’ll have any problem in any way with overconfidence,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “That’s not our problem.”
The Tigers have already overcome quite a bit to even get to this point.
The hurdles include the absence of two of their best players all season, center Austin Wiley and forward Danjel Purifoy, amid allegations that former associate head coach Chuck Person arranged payments to their families. Plus an injury to leading scorer Bryce Brown and an exhibition loss to Division II Barry.
Auburn won at Georgia 78-61 last Saturday with Brown out with a right shoulder injury. Brown practiced on Monday but his status against the Wildcats is uncertain. Murray, the team’s top rebounder, missed almost all of the second half with cramps.
The Tigers dropped two spots in the poll after also losing 81-80 to No. 21 Texas A&M . But even that provided a silver lining for Pearl.
“Do you know what I think a great headline is? ‘Auburn drops to 10,'” he said. “Is that not a great headline? I’ve been working so hard to maybe one day wake up in the morning and read the front page ‘Auburn drops to 10.’ That’s great.”
It’s especially great for a team that was picked to finish ninth in the SEC. Kentucky was the preseason favorite.
“They were picked to finish before us in the league so we’re still hungry as we’ve been before,” said point guard Jared Harper , who is leading the league in assists. “We’re trying to go into every game and continue to work toward trying to win the SEC.”
Beyond that lies the NCAA Tournament, a destination Pearl has reached 17 times as a head coach and Auburn only eight.
Harper said hearing all the tournament talk from family or around campus isn’t a distraction.
“That’s always been a dream of mine just watching since I was a little kid and seeing all the games on TV,” he said. “Just being able to be a part of it would be great.”