SAN DIEGO -- The way Auburn coach Bruce Pearl sees it, this NCAA Tournament appearance is not only about his team but also about the SEC.
"You know, we are really proud of SEC basketball right now," Pearl said after a harrowing 62-58 victory over the College of Charleston in a Midwest Region game that was not decided until the final three seconds Friday.
"I've been in this league for 10 years. It's never been stronger, and we feel the responsibility ... winning the regular season championship, to represent our conference. So maybe we are putting a little too much pressure on our kids."
Fourth-seeded Auburn (26-7) will meet No. 5 seed Clemson (24-9) in a battle of Tigers that shapes up as a duel of perimeter threats at the Viejas Arena in San Diego on Sunday for a berth in the Sweet 16 in Omaha, Neb., on March 23.
Like SEC regular-season co-champion Auburn, Clemson knows a little something about conference quality and March success. Clemson tied for third in the ACC while wining a school record 11 conference games in a league that had two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 in the NCAA Tournament.
The ACC placed nine in the NCAAs and the SEC had eight, and the SEC had the edge after going 6-2 in the first two full days of the tournament. The ACC was 6-4 including Syracuse's play-in victory Tuesday despite the historic loss by No. 1 overall tournament seed Virginia to Maryland-Baltimore County on Friday. The leagues split the first two head-to-head tournament matches, Alabama beating Virginia Tech and Florida State defeating Missouri.
"I know how good Virginia is and it's hard to beat them," Clemson coach Brown Brownell after a 79-68 victory over New Mexico State on Friday, "but I also think it's another example of (how) college basketball has changed in terms of the landscape of talent.
"There are more better players than ever, and the difference between 1s (seed) and 16s has narrowed just like with 2s and 15s and 3s and 14s and all that. I don't think there is a big difference between 5s and 12s, 6s and 13s. I just don't think there is a difference anymore."
Auburn and Clemson were chic picks to be upset in the first round, but only Auburn had much trouble.
Point guard Jared Harper's 3-pointer, his only field goal of the game, broke a tie with 59 seconds remaining as Auburn moved on while shooting 35.6 percent from the floor and making 15-of-32 free throws. Mitigating that, Auburn forced Charleston into a season-high 21 turnovers, about double its average.
Harper made a free throw with three seconds to go for the final point, although the NCAA put out a statement Saturday saying that Chuma Okeke, not Harper, should have been at the line after catching Grant Riller's air-ball 3-point attempt before passing off.
"After the foul the ref pointed at me to go to the line, so I stepped up and went to the line. Simple as that," said Harper, an 82.2 percent free throw shooter.
Auburn was in the double bonus, and the call would have mattered only if Okeke had missed both free throws with a 61-58 lead. Okeke is a 68.6 percent foul shooter.
Auburn has won eight straight NCAA openers, tied with Syracuse for the fourth-longest streak. Only North Carolina (16), Kansas (11) and Gonzaga (10) have more. Guard Mustapha Heron, who led Auburn with 16 points against the College of Charleston, will become the fifth player in school history with 1,000 points in two seasons.
Both teams lost a big man to injury during conference play, and both have persevered with strong guard play.
Clemson guards Gabe DeVoe, Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell controlled the victory over New Mexico State, combining for 60 points on 25-of-42 shooting from the field. Mitchell had 23 points and two 3-pointers and DeVoe had 22 points and two 3s.
"Our guys have been through a lot this year," Brownell said. "There has been a lot on our guys, Gabe and Shelton and Marcquise. They have had to shoulder the load in a lot of situations. They can play. If we just give them space and tell them to make plays. It's as simple as that."
The winner will extend what already has been an extraordinary season. Auburn won 21 of its first 23 and peaked at No. 8 in the AP Top 25 while making its first NCAA tourney since 2003.
Clemson reached No. 11 after winning 20 of its first 24, including a victory over North Carolina, and received its first NCAA bid since 2011.
The fact that some "experts" picked Clemson to lose its first game was talked about among the team earlier in the week, Brownell said, "but it's not like some big chip on our shoulder, underdog.
"We talked about at the beginning of the season that we not didn't concern ourselves with being picked 13th in our league and nobody believes in us because none of that really matters.
"It doesn't matter in these games if you go in as a coach and give them the Knute Rockne speech and tell them all that. Three minutes into the game it's all about making plays."