Auburn got a raw deal, which doesn’t mean Auburn can’t win it all

So you’re Auburn – No. 5 nationally in NCAA’s own NET ratings, No. 4 in Ken Pomeroy’s, winner of a loaded SEC Tournament. Here’s your reward – the No. 4 seed in the same region as the reigning champ and overall No. 1, plus an all-expenses-paid trip to Spokane, Wash., for a possible Round 2 matchup with reigning national runner-up San Diego State.

Maybe it’s just my ancient ears, but I hear a voice emanating from NCAA HQ in Indianapolis, and that voice is saying: “Our show-cause penalty on Bruce Pearl lapsed a while back, but we haven’t forgotten. Heh, heh, heh.”

Here was Steven Pearl, son of Bruce and an Auburn assistant, on YouTube’s “The Next Round”: “It’s a joke, honestly. They made up their minds before we got to the (SEC) tournament.”

Or maybe this was the NCAA’s way of saying, “You SEC folks might run college football, but you’re in our house now. How about we make Alabama a No. 4 as well and, just to keep you Tigers company, send the Tide to Spokane, too? You can remind one another how your league Just Means More.”

Here was Steven Pearl’s dad, speaking to reporters Sunday night: “Alabama, UAB and Auburn.”

Then: “In Spokane, Wash.”

Then, shaking his head: “Enough said.”

(Maybe you’re pointing to Auburn being 2-7 in Quad 1 games. Don’t. Know who else was 2-7 versus Q1 competition? Virginia. Know where UVA is ranked by NET? Fifty-fourth. It shouldn’t be in the field. But it is.)

We stipulate that the Big Dance is bigger than the Pearl family, bigger than the state of Alabama, bigger than anything in the wide world of sports. There have been unfair seedings before; there’ll be unfair seedings again. I recall Pitt, a No. 3 seed, being sent to Milwaukee in 2004 for a Round 2 game with Wisconsin, a No. 6. Brimming with righteous indignation, those Panthers won.

Maybe that’ll happen with Auburn. For my sake, I’m hoping it happens with Auburn. Because I’m picking Pearl and Co. to beat San Diego State, upset UConn in the Sweet 16 and win the whole shebang. Yeah, I’m nuts.

Or am I? (Don’t answer that.) Of the past 24 champs, 17 were ranked 11th or better by KenPom in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Only two teams in the land fit that criterion today. One’s UConn. Auburn’s the other.

I was prepared to pick a UConn-Auburn final. In my addled way, I still am. It’s just that this UConn-Auburn game will happen not on a Monday in Glendale, Ariz., but 10 days earlier in Boston.

Now hear this: I yield to no one in my respect for UConn. The Huskies have won five titles since 1998. That’s two more than Duke over the same span, two more than North Carolina, three more than Kansas, four more than Kentucky.

Since UCLA’s string of seven was snapped in 1974, only two programs – Duke in 1991 and ‘92, Florida in 2006 and ‘07 – have repeated. The Blue Devils did it with four returning starters. The Gators did it with the same first five. UConn rolled through last year’s NCAA, winning all six games by double figures. Three starters departed. Picked to finish third in the Big East, these Huskies have been even better.

They’ve lost once since Christmas. They beat Marquette, itself a No. 2 seed, three times, most recently by 16 points in the Big East final. They’re good enough to roll through this thing again, but they don’t call it March Madness because the favorites prevail every spring. It only takes one lesser night against an inspired opponent. Even with all New England rooting against it, Auburn should be inspired.

The West should come down to North Carolina and Arizona; the Wildcats are the lesser seed but the better team. Despite my skepticism about Houston’s capacity to score, I’m picking it to win the South. (I have greater questions about Kentucky’s capacity to defend.) And why do I like Tennessee, which has never graced a Final Four, in the Midwest? Because I’ve learned the hard way never to bank on Purdue.

There’s a good chance – nay, a great chance – I’ll be wrong about everything. But it amuses me when the TV talkers wax rhapsodic about underdogs but pick a Final Four of three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2. How many No. 1s made it last year? Zero. Who was the 2023 champ? UConn, a No. 4.

Only a foul in the final nanosecond of regulation kept Auburn from the 2019 championship game. Every team wants to cut down the nets on a Monday night in April. No team has ever wanted it more than Bruce Pearl’s.