Welcome to another Southeastern Conference basketball tournament, otherwise known as Mississippi State’s time of year.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury directs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011 in Knoxville, Tenn. Mississippi State won 70-69. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
No team has been more successful in recent SEC tournaments than Rick Stansbury’s Bulldogs, who are alone in reaching the semifinals each of the past four years. Mississippi State won the 2009 title over Tennessee and lost by a point in overtime to Kentucky in last year’s finale, and the Bulldogs will enter the Georgia Dome this week with momentum and a favorable bracket.
“A lot of guys here were part of both of those teams,” Stansbury said. “One year we had to win four games and one year we had to win three. These guys remember that, and we will talk about what we’ve done.
“We don’t have to be the best team for 16 games anymore. We’ve just got to be the best team for three games.”
The Bulldogs are the only team that will head to Atlanta on a three-game winning streak, and they enter for a third straight year with the predicament of having to claim the SEC tournament to reach the NCAA tournament. They are 17-13 overall and 112th in the Ratings Percentage Index after enduring a calamitous start that included the academic ineligibility of point guard Dee Bost and the haunting Christmas Eve fight between forwards Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey in Honolulu.
Mississippi State is 5-2 against teams on its side of the SEC bracket and will open Friday against the winner of Thursday night’s game between Vanderbilt and LSU. The Commodores are a lock for NCAA play but have lost three of their last four games, while LSU went 3-13 in the league.
Should Vandy wins its opener, Commodores coach Kevin Stallings knows there will be a jacked-up bunch waiting.
“As a coach you try to motivate your team, and the game needs to be as or more important for you than it is for them and that sort of thing,” Stallings said. “A team that has that desperation factor going for them might have a little bit of an advantage.”
Alabama and Georgia could be playing with some desperation as well, as the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs were projected Tuesday afternoon by ESPN as the top two teams that will miss the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs open the SEC tournament Thursday afternoon against Auburn, with the winner to play Anthony Grant’s Tide on Friday.
Could the NCAA selection committee use a potential Alabama-Georgia pairing as a March Madness play-in game?
“The only thing we can control is our effort and performance on Thursday, and that’s where we have to concentrate our efforts,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “When you start looking at RPIs and road records and winning percentage and all the things they look at, I think our body of work is pretty strong.”
The Bulldogs are 20-10 overall, went 9-7 in the SEC and are 39th in the RPI. Those numbers should prove beneficial, as should nonconference victories over fellow bubble teams such as Colorado and UAB.
Alabama also is 20-10 overall and won the SEC West at 12-4, which was capped last Saturday with a win over Georgia. Yet the Crimson Tide struggled early this season, which is reflected by an RPI of 79th.
“I feel bad for Anthony in that he wins the West and gets 12 wins in this league,” Florida’s Billy Donovan said. “There used to be a time where that was a sure shot. What has hurt Anthony are some things that took place in November and December, and I hope for Anthony that the selection committee looks at the progress they have made.
“His team is an NCAA tournament team, and they could go in there and do some damage. Georgia is the same kind of team.”
So this SEC tournament is headlined by Alabama and Georgia looking to enhance their NCAA chances, all the while hoping Mississippi State doesn’t have its annual say.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...