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Auburn Athletics photo by Jacob Taylor / Former Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl, who guided the Volunteers to the NCAA tournament in all six of his seasons in Knoxville, is 110-39 the past five seasons with Auburn. Pearl's 2019 Tigers reached the Final Four, while this season's team could ascend to a No. 1 ranking Monday.

Former Tennessee and current Auburn men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl could be on the doorstep of Southeastern Conference history.

Should the Tigers ascend to the No. 1 ranking Monday afternoon in The Associated Press poll, Pearl would become the first SEC football or basketball coach to claim the top AP spot at two league schools.

That's right. Not even Nick Saban has done that.

Pearl, who guided the Volunteers to their first No. 1 ranking in February 2008 and led the Tigers to their first NCAA tournament Final Four appearance in 2019, directed Auburn to a 13th consecutive victory Saturday night with an 80-71 comeback triumph at Ole Miss. The Tigers (16-1, 5-0 SEC) are currently No. 4, but No. 1 Baylor has lost twice in the past week and No. 3 UCLA has fallen as well, so Auburn will be challenging No. 2 Gonzaga for the top spot.

ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi revealed Saturday night that Auburn, which is led in scoring by five-star freshman Jabari Smith and in rebounds and blocks by North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler, would be his top overall seed if the NCAA tournament started today.

"We've been managing this target for the last week or so, because we've kind of put ourselves in position where all of a sudden we started climbing the rankings a little bit," Pearl said Saturday night on a Zoom call. "We had to deal with it tonight. We're going to get beat, and when we get beat, it's not going to be because we rested on our laurels.

"Ole Miss made good enough plays to beat us tonight. They outplayed us for the first 17 or 18 minutes of that game, but at the same time, it is historic and it does matter."

Should Auburn wind up No. 2 behind Gonzaga, the Tigers would match their highest basketball ranking attained in 1959 and again in 1999.

While Saban has guided Alabama's football program to six national championships and an eye-popping 14 straight years of being ranked No. 1 at some point of the season in the AP Top 25, his 2003 LSU team that won the BCS national title was never the AP No. 1 at any point. LSU beat Oklahoma 21-14 in the BCS title game in the Sugar Bowl, but Southern California entered the Rose Bowl with the No. 1 AP ranking and maintained it with a 28-14 downing of Michigan.

The 2003 football season remains the last in which the final AP and USA Today polls had separate No. 1 teams.

In the SEC, Paul "Bear" Bryant coached Kentucky to a No. 3 AP ranking in the 1950 football season before ascending to the top multiple times at Alabama, while Dan Mullen had Mississippi State at No. 1 for five weeks during the 2014 season before getting Florida up to No. 3 in 2020.

Pearl is already one of two basketball coaches ever to earn SEC titles at two schools, having won with Tennessee in 2008 and with Auburn in 2018. Eddie Fogler was the first, leading Vanderbilt in 1993 and South Carolina in 1997, though Tubby Smith (Georgia and Kentucky) and the late C.M. Newton (Alabama and Vanderbilt) certainly were successful at two SEC stops as well.

If Auburn is No. 1, it will join Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee as SEC teams that have reached the top spot in men's basketball. Arkansas also climbed to No. 1 before joining the SEC, as did Missouri and South Carolina.

"That would be a proud moment for Auburn, period — for our university and for our athletic department," Pearl said. "I understand that it doesn't mean much right now, but it still makes a very strong statement. We want to have the No. 1 business school. We want the No. 1 engineering school. We want to have the No. 1 football team and gymnastics team.

"We're an everything school."

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Auburn Athletics photo by Jacob Taylor / Auburn 6-foot-10 freshman forward Jabari Smith leads the 16-1 Tigers with 16.1 points a game and also averages 6.2 rebounds per contest.

Kendrick leaving

Georgia senior cornerback Derion Kendrick announced Sunday that he would not be using the NCAA's extra season of eligibility and that he is entering the NFL draft.

The 6-foot, 195-pounder from Rock Hill, South Carolina, played three seasons at Clemson before transferring to Athens. In his one season with the Bulldogs, Kendrick racked up 41 tackles and four interceptions, with two of his picks in the 34-11 rout of Michigan at the Orange Bowl national semifinal.

"I have been so blessed to have been able to win a national championship with two of the most prestigious programs in the country," Kendrick posted on social media.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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