Well, here we are with only three games left in this year’s basketball season! But what a season it has been?! The first 20-win season for Mississippi State Men’s Basketball since 2012 (Stansbury’s final season), and boy does it feel good!! But how much does this team have left in the tank? Can the bulldogs still make it into the Big Dance? We have heard about Coach Ben Howland and his third seasons with previous programs, and I would not count the man out being so close to the prize in sight. The bulldogs lost two controversial games to Missouri and Vanderbilt in the final minutes of play which put the dogs in a tight spot, but the Bulldogs did not give up and rebounded with a HUGE win against the Texas A&M Aggies on the road. The win against the Aggies bumped Mississippi State in the RPI rankings from number 71 to number 63, but most analysts say there is still a lot for the Bulldogs to achieve if they want to make it into the NCAA Tournament.
So what all needs to happen for the Bulldogs to make this year’s Big Dance? First off, most of us know Howland’s team needs to win out in their final three ball games. The good news is A) The Bulldogs have been one of the hottest teams in the country as of late and B) The Bulldogs get two of the games right here in The Hump. The bad news is the SEC is having a historical season as an entire conference with eight teams being considered for NCAA Tournament bids and the bulldogs not being any of those eight teams. The conference is as good as it has ever been and no game comes easy this year (look at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt games for us this year).
The Bulldogs have to play last year’s Final Four team, South Carolina, this Saturday, for a second time this season. Obviously, without Thornwell and some other pieces leaving, the Gamecocks have not been as successful this season as they were last year, BUT Frank Martin is one of the best in the coaching profession and the Gamecocks boast one of the best big men in the league, Chris Silva. Thankfully, the tandem of Aric Holman and Abdul Ado gets better and better every game, and I think it will make things very difficult for the South Carolina Big Man. Next, on Tuesday night the Bulldogs hosts the #19 nationally ranked Tennessee Volunteers coached by another coaching great, Rick Barnes, and man has Barnes turned that program back around quickly. Both Saturday and Tuesday night I expect to see a packed hump, because these are two of the biggest games in the last five years for our Men’s Basketball program and they need our support. The Bulldogs only have one loss at home all year and that was to a top-10 caliber team in the Auburn Tigers led by Coach Bruce Pearl. I personally feel if our fans show up and make The Hump the intimidating place to play that the nation has witnessed for our women’s game, we will find a way to win those ball games. Our final game would be a trip down to Baton Rouge to face fellow bubble team, the LSU Tigers, and I expect it to be a shootout as both teams compete for bids into the Big Dance. However, I just feel the Bulldogs are a much more talented team than I have seen out LSU this season and with everything on the line I think the Bulldogs can cap off a 4-game win streak to end the season.
So do I think the Bulldogs will make the NCAA tournament? You are dang right I do! (knocks on wood) Let me give you a few reasons why I think the Bulldogs have as good of a shot as anyone else:
#1 Favorable Schedule- Like I said before, we get two of our final three at home. Yes, we have to play a top-25 Tennessee team, but at least we get them on our home floor. If we played in Knoxville, I would have second thoughts about the game. Mississippi State is in a SIX-way tie for THIRD place in the conference. So I took the time to examine the remaining schedules for the other five teams
- Florida Gators: Host #12 Auburn, Road game versus Collin Sexton and Alabama, and Host the always scary Kentucky Wildcats
- Arkansas Razorbacks: Road game versus Alabama, #12 Auburn at home, Road game versus Missouri
- Missouri Tigers: Road game to Rupp Arena, Road game to Vanderbilt (tough place to play), and hosts Arkansas (hottest team in the conference)
- Alabama Crimson Tide: Hosts Arkansas, Hosts Florida, Road game versus Texas A&M ( a tournament team)
- Kentucky Wildcats: Hosts Missouri (tournament team), hosts Ole Miss, and Road game versus Florida
Now, I am just being honest, but out of the six teams, I think Mississippi State has the best 3-game stretch of any of the teams battling for the third and fourth seed in the SEC tournament. Well, what exactly does that mean?
#2 Conference Tournament Seeding- Hate me if you want for predicting this, but I think based on looking at the above remaining games for these teams that the Mississippi State Bulldogs could slide into the SEC Tournament as the 4-seed. Gaining a 4-seed in the SEC Tournament would give the dogs a double-bye which could really help or really hurt a team. We would have to wait and see how this all plays out, but if we get that double-bye, we would play the winner of the 5 seed and 12/13 seed (depending on who won first round). Now, you would hope for the 5 seed to win to give you a shot for another RPI-building win. I think if State does indeed draw the 5-seed (which would most likely be one of the teams listed above) and wins the game, then the bulldogs will make it into the Big Dance. Now, if we seed any lower than 4 in the conference tournament, then I would feel more comfortable if we won two games in the tournament. Obviously, you hope your team just goes and wins the whole thing locking in their spot in the Big Dance, but I wouldn’t want to gamble on that with the stacked conference we have this year.
#3 Talent- Mississippi State has one of the best starting five in the country. It’s not even debatable. Q Weatherspoon has been as consistent of a player through his three years here than you could ask for, Peters and Nick Weatherspoon are as talented of a duo of point guards you will find anywhere and both will continue their journey into the NBA one day, and the tandem of Ado and Holman is not fair for a team to have (ask Yante Maten and Chris Silva, both wishing they had a guy in the interior alongside them as talented as the two bulldogs). The Bulldogs possess a Sixth Man in Tyson Carter who can flat out score when he wants to, especially from 3-pt range, and a dog on the defensive side of the ball who is also improving on the offensive end in Xavian Stapleton. Eli Wright, EJ Datcher, and Keyshawn Feazell have made the most of their minutes when called upon and they may very well be the difference when it comes to postseason play. You have to have depth a lot of the time to make a run in respective tournaments. We will see what those three young men are able to bring to the table when things get rolling.
#4 Belief- I believe in this team! I have all year long, continuing to harp and harp on how this team was not getting enough credit for the way they play hard-nosed defense game in and game out. Now the bulldogs are gaining momentum every single game on the offensive side of the ball as well, and I have really gotten to the point where I feel this team can play with some of the best. The lone problem for this team is the lack of depth they have, which is why I would never expect this team to win the SEC tournament or make a deep run in the Big Dance. Next year’s team will have the opposite problem with Howland having his hands full trying to manage the minutes of so many talented players. However, I still feel this team is very deserving at their shot in the NCAA tournament and I think their passion will get them there.
So in closing, to Coach Howland and the Bulldogs if you are reading this, know that Slimy Jack has your back!! Hail State all the way!! I will be at the two home games rooting you on to victory, and I hope all of Bulldog Nation will be there too. We are blessed to have two successful basketball programs at our school. Thank you to Coach Schaefer, Coach Howland, and of course the Bulldogs for making this such an exciting basketball season for the University. GO DOGS!!!!