When Mississippi State’s season started Nov. 13, Bulldog fans had reason for concern.
The Bulldogs dropped the season opener at home to Rider 88-74. The team’s top recruit, Renardo Sidney, was stuck in eligibility purgatory. With the demise of UCLA, the team lacked any tough non-conference opponents that would give the Bulldogs a signature victory.
Back-to-back losses in early February dropped Mississippi State to 4-4 in the SEC and seemed to knock the Bulldogs off the bubble. Even though the Bulldogs immediately came home to complete a regular-season sweep of in-state rival Mississippi, they lacked any marquee wins. Luckily, an early season win against Old Dominion turns out to be a strong, résumé-building victory.
So as Mississippi State entered the SEC tournament this week, the Bulldogs were in a familiar position.
Last season, the Bulldogs had no chance to receive an at-large bid with a 19-12 record in a relatively weak SEC. But in 2009, Mississippi State caught fire and stormed through four teams in four days, including the only two other SEC teams to make the NCAA Tournament, to win the conference’s automatic bid.
The SEC is stronger this season, so a 9-7 finish — identical to last season’s conference record — is more respectable. But Mississippi State still came into the SEC tournament needing to make a deep run to reach the NCAA Tournament. And somehow, the Bulldogs have found a way to make an encore appearance in the SEC championship game.
Mississippi State started this year’s run with a big win against bubble mate Florida in the quarterfinals. That win kept Mississippi State relevant in the at-large discussion but did little to propel them past the likes of Virginia Tech, Rhode Island or Dayton. The Hokies and Flyers each had two more wins against the RPI top 25 at the end of Friday, and the Rams have a better strength of schedule and fewer bad losses.
Today’s win against Vanderbilt might be the victory that propels Mississippi State into the NCAA Tournament, though. When comparing the Bulldogs’ profile to rival Mississippi’s, the most noteworthy difference was Mississippi State’s lack of a win against an elite team. The Rebels knocked off Kansas State in November, which remains a fantastic win. The Rebels also have a win against UTEP, which almost certainly will be in the NCAA Tournament. For Mississippi State to surpass their in-state rival and other bubble teams, the Bulldogs needed to notch a marquee win. And beating the Commodores might do it.
Ranked No. 20 in the RPI, Vanderbilt is a great scalp for the Bulldogs to claim. If Mississippi State can remain competitive against Kentucky in the SEC championship game, the Bulldogs have a great shot at receiving an at-large bid even with a loss. If they lose badly, they could be in danger of slipping out of the field.
Of course, the easiest path to making the NCAA Tournament for Mississippi State is to complete the encore performance by defending the team’s SEC title.