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Auburn Sitting Pretty In South

Maybe the South should be renamed the Also-Ran Regional of the NCAA tournament.

Auburn (27-3), regular-season champion in the Southeastern Conference, received a No. 1 seed even though the Tigers lost to Kentucky 69-57 in the semifinals of the league tournament Saturday.

The next three seeds in the South Regional also enter the NCAAs off losses.

No. 2 Maryland (26-5) was upset by North Carolina 86-79 in the semis of the Atlantic Coast Conference tourney, No. 3 St. John's (25-8) was routed by Connecticut 82-63 in the finals of the Big East and No. 4 Ohio State (23-8) was shocked by Illinois 79-77 in the Big Ten semifinals.

Hey, don't stop there. The next five teams in the South lost their last games, too, beginning with No. 5 UCLA, beaten 87-70 at Arizona in the regular-season finale. It continues through No. 6 Indiana, No. 7 Louisville, No. 8 Syracuse and No. 9 Oklahoma State, all of which lost at various stages of their respective league tournaments.

Finally, at the 10th seed, there's a South team that actually comes into the tournament on a winning streak. Creighton defeated Evansville 70-61 a week ago to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

In the South, at least, the selection committee seemed intent on grouping together some of the nation's most surprising teams, rewarding them for the work of an entire season rather than their recent failings.

No team was more stunning than Auburn, a perennial NCAA selection during the 1980s with teams that featured Charles Barkley and Chuck Person. The Tigers made their last tournament appearance in 1988, settling for the NIT four times over the last decade.

But Auburn added junior college transfer Chris Porter, who became the SEC player of the year and led the Tigers to their first regular-season championship since 1960.

"It's been a long time coming for this school," coach Cliff Ellis said Sunday. "I wouldn't have believed at the beginning of the season we would have accomplished as much. I thought we were an NCAA tournament team, but to be a No. 1 seed, it's a Cinderella story."

As the Tigers learned in the SEC Tournament, seedings don't mean a thing on the court.

"These kids and these fans deserve all of this that's going on, but we've got to get back down to earth and go practice and get ready to play a game," Ellis said.

Maryland, making its school-record sixth straight NCAA appearance, received its highest seeding since 1980 but lost a chance at No. 1 by falling to North Carolina, a team they already had beaten twice.

"We had a shot at a No. 1 seed -- our power rating was there all year, our wins, road record in the conference, all those things were there," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "If we would have won, I think we would have been a top seed."

Auburn opens the tournament against 16th-seeded Winthrop 21-7) Thursday in Indianapolis, while Maryland ws assigned to the Orlando side of the bracket against Valparaiso (23-8), which made a surprising run in the tournament a year ago.

The Crusaders became just the second No. 13 seed in tournament history to reach the round of 16, upsetting Mississippi and Florida State. This time, Valpo is seeded 15th.

St. John's also will be in Orlando to meet Samford (24-5), champion of the Trans America Athletic Conference, but it's hard not to look ahead to the potential second-round matchup.

If the Red Storm wins and No. 11 George Washington (20-8) gets by Indiana, first-year St. John's coach Mike Jarvis will face his former team.

The other game in Orlando has Louisville (19-10) against Creighton (21-8). The remainder of the Indianapolis bracket has Ohio State (23-8) against Murray State (27-5), Syracuse (21-11) vs. Oklahoma State (22-10) and UCLA (22-8) taking on Detroit (24-5).

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