Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer talks to Aliyah Matharu (3) during a time-out in the first half of their NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas Thursday in Starkville. Photo by: Jim Lytle/Special to The Dispatch
March 3, 2020 9:26:44 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State still has plenty to play for -- at least in Vic Schaefer's eyes.
Sitting at 25-5 and 13-3 in conference play, MSU heads to Greenville, South Carolina as the No. 2 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. And while the Bulldogs won't know their opponent in Friday's quarterfinal until later this week, Schaefer's bunch have plenty on the line in the Palmetto State.
"I've been telling them we've got a lot to play for," Schaefer said following MSU's win over Arkansas last week. "If we can do some things, something now in the next three, four games you've got a chance to improve where we are. We have so much to play for."
Slotted at No. 11 overall the NCAA's final top 16 that was released Monday night, the Bulldogs would be a No. 3 seed in the Dallas regional alongside No. 2 Baylor, No. 7 Stanford and No. 13 Iowa.
And while it looks to be MSU headed for a No. 3 seed come Selection Monday on March 16, a run to the semifinals or beyond in Greenville, could push MSU up to the No. 2 line.
"I think it's more for the fans than it is for my attention," Schaefer said of the latest rankings. "I'm focused on our team, trying to get them better, really trying to keep their head out of something like that to be honest with you. Sometimes with a young team you're better off not knowing certain things, but then sometimes you're trying to teach them and you want them to gather information but that isn't one of them."
Having earned a double-bye, the Bulldogs will face either Florida or LSU in the quarterfinals. In their lone meetings with either team, MSU downed Florida by 46 in Starkville, while LSU gave the Bulldogs more fits -- falling 64-60, though that was before Ayana Mitchell suffered a season-ending injury.
Assuming things go chalk, MSU should see either No. 16 Kentucky or Tennessee in the quarterfinals if they handle business against the Gators or Tigers. The Bulldogs previously downed the Volunteers in Knoxville sans first team All-SEC honoree Rannia Davis, and fell to the Wildcats in Lexington courtesy of 26 points from conference Player of the Year Rhyne Howard.
Forecasting further down the line, if the Bulldogs do reach the SEC tournament title game Sunday, a rematch with No. 1 South Carolina is the most likely scenario. One season removed from earning their first tournament title with a SCORE whallopping of Arkansas in Nashville last year, MSU would have to dethrone a Gamecocks squad whose lone loss of the year came Nov. 28 against Indiana.
In their previous meeting in Columbia, MSU had a chance to tie or win the game with under ten seconds remaining but a wayward inbounds pass gave South Carolina a 82-79 victory in a de facto regular season SEC title game.
"I definitely want to go out there and take it game by game instead of just looking to that Sunday game," senior guard Jordan Danberry said. "We've got to handle our business Friday, but just that feeling of having the confetti falling, playing in (the championship) and celebrating with your team -- knowing all the hard work you've put in over the years -- is a moment I'm looking forward to."
At present, MSU's eight wins versus RPI top-60 teams this season is tied for the sixth-most of any team currently in the Associated Press top-10. Should the Bulldogs down LSU, Tennessee or Kentucky in the SEC tournament, their 10 RPI top-60 victories would be tied for the fourth-most of any top-10 team and give them an obvious bump in their hunt for a No. 2 seed.
Beyond MSU's actual path, it's who the Bulldogs won't see before the title game that is perhaps as pressing. Slotted on the opposite side of the SEC tournament bracket is No. 1 South Carolina, No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 25 Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and Auburn -- all of whom rank inside the RPI top-115. By contrast, MSU's side of the bracket (Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU, Missouri, Florida, Ole Miss) boasts just three teams inside the RPI top 115.
And while Schaefer and his squad has adopted the Joe Moorhead-ian cliche that the most important game of the season is the next one, the Bulldogs are in comfortable position to bolster their NCAA Tournament seeding.
"I think there's so much that's going to happen between now and that day when everything is selected," Scahefer said Tuesday. "I think we can certainly improve our spot."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.