21-9 (12-4 SEC West Champions)
The Growth of a Seed
ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi is currently projecting the Bulldogs to be a falling 7 seed, after being a rising 6 seed last week. The March 10th edition of Projecting the Seed on CBS Sportsline also has Mississippi State as a 7 seed. Seeding can clearly rise and fall with conference tournament performance. Today, I’ll put the Bulldogs down as a 7 seed as well. With their strength of schedule at 50 and an SEC West title in the trophy case, the Bulldogs are a lock to make the NCAA tournament, even though they are only 3-7 against top 50 RPI teams.
Mississippi State has a bye in the first round of the SEC tournament and is set to play the winner of the Alabama/Florida game on Friday, March 14th at 7:30 pm. If the Bulldogs win one, or even two, in the SEC tournament (after the Crimson Tide/Gators, MSU is on the Kentucky vs. Georgia/Ole Miss side of the bracket), I think they have a solid chance of being a 6 seed. If the Bulldogs lose to Florida in the second round, they might have a chance of staying a 7 seed in the Big Dance. But if it’s a loss to lowly Alabama, they could drop to 8 or 9.
Wins That Count
Well, all of them count….but wins at home against Kentucky, Ole Miss and Arkansas stand out. The selection committee will no doubt most notice Mississippi State’s 12-4 conference record. Yes, it’s a down year for the SEC, currently ranked 4th in conference RPI, but that should not take away from a division championship in a traditionally strong conference.
Losses That Hurt
Seven of Mississippi State’s nine losses have come to RPI top 50 teams….so, no bad ones there. Although, blowing a game at South Alabama with a 13 point lead and 10:25 left in the 2nd half should never be considered “okay.” State’s two worst losses have come at the hands of Southern Illinois and Miami Ohio (#61 and #81 in RPI respectively) during the Anaheim Classic back in late November; the Bulldogs have obviously improved since. Southern Illinois bowed out in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, their 17-14 record only leaving them with faint NIT hopes. [Epic Carnival has officially popped the SIU bubble] Miami OH, ranked 5th in the Mid-American Conference, still has a chance to dance as their conference tournament starts Wednesday. In any case, dropping two games to “mid-major” Mid-Majors is a blemish, albeit minor, on the Mississippi State résumé. The NCAA tournament selection committee will note that there are no true “bad” losses (to a 100+ RPI team) for this Bulldog squad.
Players to Eyeball
Mississippi State has plenty players of note. Ben Hansbrough, the sophomore and younger brother of North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough, has helped push the Bulldogs to the next level after he missed SEC games 5 through 7 due to injury/sickness, two of those games being back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Tennessee.
Rail-thin sophomore Jarvis Varnado led the NCAA in blocked shots with 4.8 per game. On the season, Jarvis had three 10 block games and 16 total games with 5 or more blocks.
Junior Jamont Gordon gets a lot of attention. He’s even one of the 24 finalists for the 2008 John Wooden Award. He is capable of dominating every aspect of a game, as he averaged 17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists on the year.
The key to Bulldog success? Senior Charles Rhodes. The agile big men can lead his team to tournament victories if he is able to effectively establish himself in the paint on offense early in games. I am looking for him to improve on his season averages of 16.8 points and 7.7 rebounds as Mississippi State charges into the post season.
A Rick Stansbury team traditionally means tough defense and rebounding, and this season’s campaign is no exception. Let’s go through some numbers:
- The Bulldogs led the SEC in scoring defense, holding opponents to an average of 65 points per game.
- MSU was first in the SEC in field goal percentage defense, opponents shot .369 on the year (MSU was second to Tennessee in 3-point FG% defense at .316).
- The Dawgs were first in the SEC in rebounding offense, 40.9 per game (second in rebounding margin at +5.1).
- Mississippi State was first in the SEC in shot blocking averaging 8.10 per game (second place LSU averaged 6.5 per game).
So as you can see, with the nation’s leading shot blocker, Jarvis Varnado AKA “Swat” patrolling the paint, Mississippi State is capable of locking down very good teams. Statistics point to the Bulldogs having one of the top 10 defenses in the nation.
Free throws and turnovers, another tradition of Rick Stansbury teams. This season, Mississippi State is second worst in the SEC at the charity stripe shooting 63.5% (good for 313th in the nation). It’s no surprise that in their nine losses, the Bulldogs have been even worse at the line, making 58.8% of their FT attempts. In fact, we should stop using Mississippi State and free-throws in same sentence all together. Let’s just refer to them as “Line Challenges.”
Freebies: The Bulldogs have accomplished a 12-4 conference record despite their penchant for something else “free” – giving the ball away….turnovers. M-State has averaged 15.5 turnovers per game on the year (99th worst in NCAA DI), good enough for the second worst turnover margin in the SEC, along with the 10th “best” assist/turnover ratio in the conference. Of the 465 turnovers committed by the Bulldogs on the season, the team’s star players, Jamont Gordon and Charles Rhodes, are responsible for close to 40%. Gordon, the team’s starting point guard, came through with 121 turnovers of his own, compared to his 143 assists…..good thing he’s 3rd in the SEC in dimes I suppose. There are 12 NCAA Division I players who have committed more turnovers than Gordon this season.
Rick Stansbury, for all the accolades he’s garnered in his 10 year career as head coach at Mississippi State University: 206 wins (most in school history), a .646 winning percentage, 4 NCAA tournament appearances and 4 SEC West titles; Stansbury has yet to lead his team to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. This will be the year that he succeeds. Given that the Bulldogs don’t face some incredible dominating post player or an exceptional 3 point shooting team in the first two rounds (the latter happening has a much higher chance, especially when dealing with a possible mid-major 8, 9 or 10 seed), their chances of willing themselves into the round of 16 are high. Some believe that the Mississippi State Bulldogs even have Final Four potential. Hey, if the two superstars get on a roll, the sky is the limit, or, at least breathing the early April air in San Antonio.