The Bulldogs opened SEC play Tuesday night, underdogs for just the second time in 14 games. Unfortunately, that says more about the schedule than the team. State carried a 12-1 record, but received only one vote in the latest AP poll. And that’s what they deserved after a pillow soft schedule, and a Cincinnati game dominated from wire to wire by the Bearcats. I’m surprised a single writer stuck his neck out. None of that’s to say this team is bad - you don’t take care of business 12 times without some basic competence - but we had very little evidence to say this team can handle a real opponent.
That changed with Arkansas, a 78-75 affair that featured nine ties and eleven lead changes. Even that understates how fun the game was, enhanced by who the 78 was assigned to.
Beating a ranked opponent is encouraging, but a 3 point win is hardly predictive of future performance. Would it change the prognosis if two more Arkansas shots had dropped? Not really. If we stop at the score board, all we can really say is they can compete with a good team at home.
But watching the game felt different. It felt like one of the teams was better (not much better, but enough to matter) for at least 30 minutes - regularly winning on both ends of the floor - while the other team scraped their way by luck and a few great shots to a competitive game. One team was able to get to the paint at will while the other had to rely heavily on making tough shots from midrange. At the same time the better team saw more open looks from 3 and had over twice as many blocks and steals. And no, that better team was not the visiting Razorbacks. If State had shot season average beyond the arc and at the free throw line there’d be no need for a travel with 8 seconds left. Nobody would have had the chance to miss three of the last four free throws. And those two gutsy long balls from Q would have been icing on the cake.
There were lapses of course. The first few possessions of both halves were terrible, and for about five minutes in the 2nd there could have been a turnstile in place of every defender but Ado. In that same timeframe our offense devolved into wild driving for the privilege of contested off balance shots. Yes, State really did miss 81% from 3. They really did miss 16 free throws, and shot 42% despite regular good looks. Hack-Ado is going to be a constant until he gets right from the stripe. All of this can, and likely will cost games in the coming months.
But an NIT bound group isn’t supposed to beat a top 25 opponent when that stuff happens. Not even at home. When State took down the Razorbacks last year they shot 46% for 3 and still only won by 6. That’s what an “upset” looks like. When they shot 19% in the SEC opener against Bama it was a 10 point loss. That’s how this would have ended if evenly matched.
This was something else. Maybe it was the peak performance of the season. Maybe it was a really good team surviving an off night against a quality opponent. But it certainly wasn’t a bad team sneaking up on someone. The better team won, and the margin easily could have been wider.
Ben Howland’s perennially young team won’t be “legit” until they can back it up night after night. Can Ado maintain the elite defense? Will he get better? Can he and the rest of the team hit free throws? Will they collapse in a hostile environment? Was this a super bowl or can they maintain that focus every game? And can they stop the dead periods that have plagued them all season? These questions are the difference between the NIT and NCAA, and I can’t wait to learn the answers over the next month.
But for now I’m content to enjoy the knowledge that Mississippi State men’s basketball was simply superior to a top 25 opponent Tuesday night. They won the game in spite of luck rather than because of it. That’s a feeling I haven’t felt in a long time.