Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. It has been more than 5 years since the Bulldog men have made an NCAA tournament appearance. The previous season, the team had fewer than 20 wins and finished under .500 in conference play. The Bulldogs just wrapped up a pretty weak non-conference schedule with a lone loss that came against a ranked Cincinnati team. The Bulldogs went on to open conference play with a strong home win against a ranked opponent. No, I’m not describing the current season. This is the 2001-2002 season that saw the Bulldogs make their first tournament appearance since their 1996 Final Four run.
There are a number of similarities between this season and the 2001-2002 season. That year Rick Stansbury was in his fourth year as the head coach. Ben Howland is in his third season. Both teams had a big man posting over 10 points and 7 rebounds per game. In 2002, Mario Austin maintained that pace for the entire season and we’ll have to see if Aric Holman can continue his stellar play as conference play gets underway. That 2002 team had one of State’s all-time best backcourt duos with Timmy Bowers and Derrick Zimmerman. So far, this season, the Weatherspoon brothers are combining for more points, assists, and rebounds per game while playing about the same number of minutes. One of the greatest strengths of this year’s team has been their defense. They currently rank 23rd nationally in points per game allowed. In the conference opener, they held Arkansas to 75 points, their lowest total of the season, and well below their 89.3 per game average. Continuing to play elite defense will be a key factor in having a successful conference season.
Much like the Fall of 2001, the non-conference portion of the schedule didn’t do much in the way of resume-building, but it went a long way in confidence-building for a young team. Of the 9 players on that team that averaged more than 8 minutes per game, only two were seniors. That core of players started a run that would see tournament appearances in each of the following 3 seasons. Compare that to this season and a roster that is loaded with underclassmen. Of the 9 players averaging more than 8 minutes per game this season, 6 of them are sophomores or freshmen. At the very least, they are getting invaluable experience that will serve them well in future seasons.
One caveat with that 01-02 team is that they didn’t have to sweat on Selection Sunday. They won the SEC tournament (Stansbury’s first championship, just like it would be for Howland). However, their conference play was good enough to finish 26th in KenPom’s ratings so it’s likely they would’ve gotten a bid regardless. This year the Bulldogs are 13-1, they’ve managed a top-65 KenPom rating despite an abysmal non-conference strength of schedule, and they’re loaded with young talent. There is a lot of reason for optimism for this season and future seasons. For what it’s worth, those 2002 Bulldogs went on to lose their next two conference games on the road to unranked opponents. The Bulldogs are about to go on the road to face consecutive unranked opponents. Even if they lose both, there’s no reason to panic. If history is any indication, they’ll still finish strong and make the tournament.