Mississippi State’s Aric Holman takes a shot against Auburn earlier in the season. Holman and the Bulldogs will play a pivotal Southeastern Conference game at 6 tonight when they play host to No. 16 Tennessee. Photo by: Jim Lytle/Special to The Dispatch
February 27, 2018 10:48:34 AM
STARKVILLE -- What would be Senior Night for almost any other college basketball program is going to take on much more than the meaning of any one player on Mississippi State's roster.
The final home game of the season is usually one in which programs honor their departing players in what should be their final game in their home arena; MSU is too young for such an occasion. As MSU men's basketball coach Ben Howland has pointed on several occasions, the youth on his roster leaves him without a scholarship senior (walk-on Drew Davis is listed as a senior). Instead, its home finale could play a role in sending it to the NCAA tournament.
No. 16 Tennessee (21-7, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) visits Humphrey Coliseum 6 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network) with its Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) ranking 12th, presenting MSU with a win it most likely has to have to reach the tournament as an at-large selection. The last three weeks have proven MSU (21-8, 9-7 SEC) can rise to such an occasion more than once, and continue getting better between each opportunity.
"They've done a great job for quite a while now," Howland said. He stopped short of declaring a win over Tennessee should be enough to get the Bulldogs into the tournament, but his junior forward Aric Holman did not.
"I feel like we're the hottest team in the league right now," Holman said. "We're building more and more confidence and motivation, enthusiasm for the game right now."
Holman referenced MSU winning seven of its last nine games in dubbing his team the SEC's hottest, a run that includes wins over three teams that are currently top 50 in RPI: Missouri on Jan. 27 to start the run of wins before Alabama on Feb. 6 and at Texas A&M on Feb. 20. MSU also won on the road at South Carolina, ranked 74th in RPI, on Jan. 31. The wins have bumped MSU up to 62in in RPI and up to 50 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings based on advanced statistics; over the past two years, 11 of the 20 teams ranked between 50 and 59 in KenPom made the NCAA tournament.
Still, based on recent projections, MSU needs more.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi's most recent bracket projection, released Monday, has MSU as the final team in the First Four Out, meaning there are three teams in between MSU and the final at-large spot: Syracuse, UCLA and Nebraska. On top of its 72-68 overtime win over South Carolina, MSU was boosted by a rough Saturday for other bubble teams, including Utah's loss to USC.
MSU is in the same position on bracketmatrix.com, a database of all notable bracket projections to best judge where the majority lies. Bracketmatrix.com uses a total of 83 projections and MSU is in 12 of them; for context, the First Four Out compiled by the site features UCLA in 30 projections, Syracuse in 19 and Washington in 16. Of the 55 projections deemed most reliable by the site, MSU is in nine of them.
If MSU truly has more work to do in the eyes of the Selection Committee, it won't bother them. It's been going about its work with that in mind for weeks now.
"We're trying to make this run to the tournament. Everybody is locked in and focused," sophomore guard Lamar Peters said. "For two weeks straight we've been focused on getting into the tournament; we took two tough losses, back-to-back, but we just wanted to stay in there."
It has done just that through a streak of games that seemed impossible based on the early results: the second-half collapse in what may be the best home opportunity it had all season, against Auburn, an offensive falling out in the loss at Ole Miss and coming just short of a miraculous comeback at Alabama. The result was a 2-5 start to conference play that still could not kill the team's resolve to a goal given to it by its head coach.
"At the beginning of the year. Coach Howland kept putting it in the back of our mind that we're a great team and we have a chance to do a lot of things. Guys started buying in," Holman said.
Holman said even after losing five of the first seven conference games, the team did not lose sight of that goal. Bonding together on that goal has been part of the reason the team has gotten closer to it.
"I'd say we're handling it pretty well because guys aren't settling. When we got that win over South Carolina, guys were already mentally getting focused for the game on Tuesday," Holman said. "Guys are getting shots up before Coach Howland said we had shooting."
Howland added, "I think this is a team that's become closer and closer as the season's progressed, and that definitely helps you when you have guys that are playing for each other with good team leadership."
MSU will need more than a common goal to bond around against the Volunteers. Tennessee boasts the fourth-best defense in the nation, according to KenPom's numbers, and also rates as one of the best offensive rebounding teams as it ranks 57th out of 351 Division I teams in KenPom's offensive rebounding percentage metric. It has already won seven true road games.
South Carolina had four road wins on its resume before it saw the new-look Bulldogs, yet the Gamecocks were sent hime with a loss. South Carolina coach Frank Martin can tell the difference in Howland's team -- the difference that built MSU into a team knocking on the door of the NCAA tournament bubble.
"They're old. Those kids have been together for three years now, Peters is a year older now," Martin said. "(Quinndary Weatherspoon) has been around for a few years now, he's a winner. The question about the mistakes my freshmen made, those are mistakes he made last year; he's not making those mistakes anymore."
Weatherspoon brothers, Peters get honored
Peters was named the SEC Co-Player of the Week Monday, sharing the honor with Tennessee's Admiral Schofield. Peters scored 15 and 19 points in wins at Texas A&M and against South Carolina while averaging six assists and five rebounds over those two games.
"I'm really excited for him, he's played great and it was very well-deserved," Howland said. "He's playing a really good floor game, like a point guard. He's playing great defense, too. He's playing an all-around game, and that's what's exciting about him: he's being dominant with and without the ball, on both sides of the floor."
Peters is the first Bulldog of the season to earn the honor; freshman guard Nick Weatherspoon was named the SEC Freshman of the Week earlier this season.
Weatherspoon and his brother, junior guard Quinndary, were named finalists for the C Spire Howell Trophy, given to the state's best male college basketball player, alongside Southern Mississippi's Cortez Edwards. Quinndary Weatherspoon leads the team with 14.7 points per game on top of 6.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game; Nick Weatherspoon is not far behind with averages of 11.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1 steal per game.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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