For the first time in 10 years, your Bulldogs are dancing! Ben Howland has led the Mississippi State Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament in his fourth year and broke the long drought of not making the Tournament. Mississippi State (23-10) faces the Liberty Flames (28-6) in the Round of 64.
Liberty finished first in the Atlantic Sun Conference and only lost two games in its conference. Over the course of the season, the Flames defeated teams like UCLA, Georgia State, and Navy, but lost to Georgetown, Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Austin Peay. Mississippi State went 1-1 against Alabama, and soundly defeated Vanderbilt and Austin Peay, but Liberty will still be a challenge for the Bulldogs.
Liberty is ranked 12th in the nation in field goal percentage at 49 percent and top 60 in the country in fewest turnovers. The Flames run a slow-pace offense and like to use as much clock as possible on offense, capitalize on their opportunities, and limit their opponents’ possessions.
Mississippi State ranks 46th in Field Goal percentage with 47.2 percent, respectively. The Bulldogs are in the top 120 in forcing turnovers. Getting as many extra possessions as possible is key to the Bulldogs’ victory.
Liberty has a lot of depth on their roster and give many different guys plenty of minutes. The Flames’ leading scorers are Scottie James (13.1 points per game), Caleb Homesley (12), and Lovell Cabbil Jr. (11.5). James is a Junior and the leader on this Liberty squad. He leads the team in points, rebounds, and field goal percentage. James shoots 33.3% from behind the arc, but hasn't made a 3-pointer since Feb. 5. He’s shooting 67.6% from the floor and averaged 18.7 points in the ASUN Conference Tournament.
The Flames’ best shooters are Cabbil Jr. (44.5 percent from 3-point range), Elijah Cuffee (42.5 percent), and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz (47.8 percent). Pacheco-Ortiz brings a lot of energy with him when he steps on the court and is very reliable as the spark coming off the bench. He only has 12 games where he scored more than 10 points, but he averaged 12.3 points and shot 5-for-10 (50 percent) from 3-point range in the ASUN Conference Tournament.
Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters, Tyson Carter, and Aric Holman are all shooting 37 percent or better from deep with Holman claiming the team-high at 43.1 percent. Holman is coming off one of his best shooting performances in his career against Tennessee. He finished with 20 points, shot 7-for-9 from the field, and a perfect 5-for-5 from 3-point range. Holman has struggled over the course of the season, and that game may have given him the confidence that can lift the entire team and lead them to a few victories in the Tournament.
Ben Howland will want to force Liberty to speed their offense up. When they are sped up, they will be out of their offense and will likely make mistakes. Howland has been to this Tournament numerous times and knows what it takes to win. Quinndary Weatherspoon is ending his career as a Bulldog in the NCAA Tournament after only making it to the NIT last year. Q has multiple buzzer beaters in his career at MSU, but the most memorable is the one against Baylor in the NIT. If the opportunity for a buzzer beater comes to the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament, the ball will be in Q’s hands.
Survive and advance will be the mentality of the team. If Mississippi State defeats Liberty, they will face the winner of Virginia Tech and St. Louis in the Round of 32. If they win that game and advance to the Sweet 16, the Bulldogs will face No. 1 seed Duke, No. 8 seed VCU, No. 9 seed UCF, or No. 16 seed North Dakota State. It’s very exciting to see what this dangerous Bulldog team can do to this Tournament. Hail State and Go Dawgs!