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Auburn coach Bruce Pearl disputes a call against his team during an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, in Auburn, Ala. Texas A&M won 71-61.

Maybe Bruce Pearl embarrassed the entire Southeastern Conference when he lost his basketball post at Tennessee for lying to the NCAA and maybe he didn't.

In a league that's too often accused of embracing the unofficial NASCAR slogan "If you ain't cheatin' you ain't tryin,'" breaking NCAA rules unfortunately means different things to different folks.

But there is little doubt that Pearl's inspired coaching during his first season at Auburn could leave the SEC quite embarrassed come Selection Sunday regarding the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

Thanks to the Tigers' stunning road upsets at Georgia and LSU the past couple of weeks, a league that felt great about getting as many as six teams into March Madness two weeks ago may now receive no more than four bids 24 days from today.

Having now lost two straight after Tuesday's shocking no-show against visiting South Carolina, Georgia might actually need to stun No. 1 and undefeated Kentucky on March 3 to feel comfortable about a bid. And that's if they go 2-1 over their remaining three road games at Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss.

Then there's LSU, without question the most perplexing team on the NCAA bubble. Yes, the Tigers won at West Virginia, which No. 8 Kansas couldn't do earlier this week. Yes, they led visiting UK by six points more than midway through the final half a little over a week ago. And yes, they roared to a 47-20 halftime lead at UT, which might be the most impressive 20 minutes played all season within the conference.

But the Bayou Bengals have also lost at Missouri, caved to Clemson, were toppled by Old Dominion's Monarchs and have been swept by Texas A&M, though LSU's loss might become the Aggies' gain regarding an NCAA bid.

Point is, for all the good work done by SEC associate commissioner Mark Whitworth the past two seasons — with a little help from the SEC Network this time around — in promoting the league's hoops product, it's ultimately up to the individual schools to prove they deserve to dance in March.

"We're getting better," Whitworth said on Tuesday night as he took in Kentucky's pedestrian 66-48 win over UT. "The non-conference schedules have improved, We've got at least six teams who are in the running for an NCAA bid. But that doesn't mean we're where we want to be as a conference."

In the big picture that's too often ignored in sports, Whitworth is right. CBSSports.com numbers guru Jerry Palm currently has the SEC fourth among conferences in RPI, trailing only the Big 12, Big East and ACC. Given the league's 19-26 overall record against those three, that seems about right.

To further trumpet the SEC, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi began the week with six SEC teams — Arkansas, Kentucky, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M — all in the NCAA tourney, though LSU and A&M were only given No. 11 seeds.

Which brings us back to Pearl and Auburn. Though the Tigers — now 12-14 overall and 4-9 in the SEC following Tuesday night's loss to visiting Alabama — aren't likely to go anywhere unless they win the SEC Tournament in Nashville to claim the league's automatic NCAA berth, they may be the ultimate stumbling block for those with a chance to go.

Consider that three of Auburn's final five games come against teams clearly on the NCAA bubble: LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, and only A&M doesn't have to visit the Loveliest Village on the Plains.

Given that Georgia and LSU have already lost to the Tigers in their home gyms, Auburn Arena just might become the center of the league's basketball universe on both Feb. 24 (LSU) and March 7, when Georgia arrives for the league's final regular-season weekend.

Of course, Auburn has to travel to UK this Saturday, which means the Tigers aren't likely to build much momentum for the season's final two weeks. Big Blue's dominance even brings to mind an interesting conundrum for the league. Is it better for the Cats to remain undefeated and bring the SEC much national attention? Or would a Georgia win over UK in Athens on March 3 be more important, since it might secure the Bulldogs a bid?

"It couldn't hurt," said ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, which will surely convince the more paranoid within the Big Blue Nation to worry over which referees might work that game.

But assuming UK and Arkansas are locks for March Madness what should fans of bubble teams Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M be paranoid about over the last 17 days of the regular season?

Now 7-6 in the league after losing to South Carolina, the Bulldogs must win three of their final five, which means winning at Bama and Auburn.

Also 7-6 in the SEC, LSU must also go 3-2, its only acceptable losses being to visiting Ole Miss and at Arkansas.

Depending on what happened late Wednesday at Mississippi State, the Rebels probably can lose only at LSU to feel safe. If State was a win, Ole Miss could probably lose two of their last five.

As for A&M, with a 9-4 league mark after Tuesday's win over LSU, the Aggies probably need only win their two remaining home games against Auburn and Alabama, as well as Saturday's road trip to South Carolina, to march into March.

As he discussed his team's Tuesday loss to Alabama, Pearl said, "That is just an example of our roster and our limitations, our lack of depth, and things that we've struggled with all year long. Sometimes it gets exposed and sometimes it doesn't."

How well Georgia, LSU and A&M expose those weaknesses over the next 17 days may ultimately determine to what degree the SEC is exposed to the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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