TAMPA — Auburn coach Jeff Lebo has heard criticism of the SEC all season, and if you're wondering if the league could have as few as two NCAA Tournament teams, Lebo wonders if it will have any at all.
"The SEC, as much as it's been bashed, I'm not so sure we're going to get the automatic qualifier," Lebo said after his team's 94-85 loss Saturday to Tennessee. "They might take that from us this year. I mean, my Lord. We are down, but to say that we have just disappeared, that's what gets frustrating.
"It's been since 1986, I think we've had (at least) five in. We've been the hottest team coming down the stretch. Not just hot for a week or hot for two weeks."
Auburn has won nine of its past 11 games, including wins over the top two teams in the league.
"When is the last time that a team that has won 11 SEC games and not gotten in?" Lebo said. "… They just bash the SEC this year. It's just not fair."
Lebo said it speaks of the SEC's depth that Florida, with two recent national titles, and Kentucky, with its rich tradition, aren't part of the league's final four in Tampa.
With No. 20 LSU as the lone ranked team, many experts predict the Tigers and Tennessee may be the only league teams in the field of 64, leaving Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State on the outside looking in.
Mississippi State plays Tennessee today in the tournament's championship game, and to eliminate any guesswork, Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said his team's primary focus is winning the title to take the decision out of the selection committee's hands.
But what if the Bulldogs finish as runnerup?
"I learned a long time ago, for me to worry about things I can't control is an absolute waste of energy," Stansbury said.
"I know this. We're 7-1 against the (SEC) East. We're 9-7 coming into this. … Four road wins, 4-4 on the road in the SEC. And you go into the finals of the SEC tournament. You start breaking that down (about) who becomes the third and fourth team to get in. You guys make the case."
BAD BREAKS: Circumstances beyond their control continue to haunt local organizers of the SEC basketball tournament.
A poor economy, a down year in the league and a new, less centrally located tournament site have all had a negative effect on attendance.
Then on Friday, the state team (Florida) and the perennial power (Kentucky) both lost, taking with them any potential for large weekend crowds at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Saturday's attendance for the two semifinals was 10,387, down 3,741 from Friday's less-than-ideal attendance.
MAYBE LATER: No. 1 seed LSU was hoping to win its first SEC tournament championship since 1980, so even though the Tigers are assured of making the NCAA Tournament, it didn't ease their pain over Saturday's loss to Mississippi State.
"We don't enjoy losing," junior Tasmin Mitchell said. "It's going to be hard for us to get past. I mean, it's going to be hard for us to really look ahead. We know what's ahead, but it's going to be hard for us to look ahead because coach always taught us to think about the present. …
"Next week or so, we might be happy to see where we're at in the NCAA Tournament. But right now, we're just focused on this loss today."