With a few moments left in the 1st half, the officials met under the MSU basket before a free throw attempt. The impromptu meeting ended with Andre walking away abruptly with his hands raised in an aggressive manner. That's not an excuse; that's just a detail from a great ball game. I did feel it was embarrassing for the conference to have two officials at such odds in the conference championship game.
Despite the blown lay-ups, chip shots, and questionable calls with 2 minutes left, the Bulldogs were still right there. A second consecutive tournament championship was in reach, but it was not to be. The effort was there, the coaching was there, but sadly, we were a little short on execution.
None of that matters now. We have played the entire season to reach this point. The MSU men find themselves in a great position. Had MSU defeated UK, chances are they would have earned at best a 4 seed. A 4 still plays a 5 in the second round, so assuming we would have ended up in the East Regional anyway, we're no worse off.
MSU plays what many consider the final team to be granted an at-large bid, Butler University. Butler's bubble burst last season and many felt the NCAA would smile on the lesser known Bulldogs this year. The NCAA did just that, but take nothing away from Butler; they are a tournament team and will make a worthy opponent for the major conference Bulldogs in maroon and white.
The NCAA didn't do Butler any favors by sending them to Birmingham to play a streaking Mississippi State Bulldog team in essentially a home game. Butler did not lose a home game all season at Hinkel Arena, but did lose 5 away from home. Butler lost by 20 to a Duke team that had not hit it's stride. Duke was the only team on the Bulldog's schedule with any national prestige. Butler won their regular season championship with a 14-2 conference mark, but lost out in it's conference tournament, which caused many to wonder if Butler would be sent to the N.I.T. once again.
The burning question on everyone's mind is can Butler beat MSU? The answer to that question is a resounding YES! Do I think they will? Absolutely not! MSU is far too athletic and too talented, but if the MSU Dawgs start flat and let Butler start dropping some threes, a la University of Louisiana at Lafayette, anything can happen.
In last season's opening round of the NCAA Tournament against McNeese State, the Bulldogs took a little while to get started. This Butler team was the most prolific scoring team in their conference. If Butler can hang around and put some doubt in the minds of MSU, who knows. The biggest advantage MSU has is experience. They are used to seeing and hearing their highlights on Sportscenter. They've been to the dance before and they know what's at stake.
While I expect Butler to be stubborn, MSU will pound them to death inside with Mario Austin and penetration dribbles from Zimmerman and Bowers. On the defensive end, I am sure the SEC Dawgs will remind the Butler players why none of them made the team at Indiana. I expect MSU to pull away late and make the score look worse than the actual game was. If MSU gets an early lead don't look for Butler to quit until they know they have no shot. Until then, enjoy visiting their message board.
In the 2nd round the Bullies will more than likely face ole nemesis Rick Pitino and his new team, Louisville. I saw in the Lexington paper this past Sunday that many in the blue grass state think Pitino threw the SEC tournament championship game in 1996. The story read "Did Pitino plan loss in 1996 SEC Tourney?". I scoff at the suggestion and I am sure Richard Williams and Erick Dampier would agree with me.
Louisville may have played their best basketball early in the season. The second half of the conference schedule has been particularly unkind to the Cardinals. The Cards managed to slip by a surging UAB team that MSU throttled in Birmingham earlier in the season. While UL has Gaines and Stone, they seem to lack a cohesiveness in the line-up. UL reminds me of Xavier earlier in the season. UL still has been unable to find consistency on offense, but they run an outside-in game.
Gaines will certainly draw Zimmerman, which will force the Cardinals to go somewhere else for points. I look for Branden Vincent and Michal Ignerski to both be an integral part of our team's success. Vincent presents a challenge for his counterpart when on offense. Vincent has a nose for the ball and can put the clamps on like no one else in the SEC.
The biggest change the Bullies need to make is attacking the basket. There have been several fruitless trips where we miss a chip shot looking for a three-point play. Earlier in the season Austin and Zimmerman were shaking the rafters with some thunderous dunks. If the Bullies can revert to that mentality, the 3-point plays will take care of themselves and it will open up the inside-out game even more. We have to convert those points in the paint to advance to the round of 16.
The MSU ladies could not have orchestrated a better bracket in my opinion. They avoid conference foes LSU and Tennessee until the Final Four. They also didn't get the cursed UCONN bracket. The Lady Dogs end up in Duke's bracket. The Blue Devils are great at 31-1, but the ACC was down in relation to SEC standards. I think they're prime for the picking and if our ladies are fortunate enough to meet them, my money is on Latoya.
The ladies are a three-seed and have to fight the altitude out west, but the only team in their POD, in my opinion, that could derail our meeting with Duke is Texas Tech. I personally think the Red Raiders are over-rated and were the beneficiaries of playing in the Big-12. The SEC produced two one seeds and MSU played them both to the wire the last time out. This is not a good match-up for the Lady Raiders.
The Bullies will miss Blessing on the court and we all wish her the speediest of recoveries, but this is a veteran team. Someone must step up. All of MSU's games in the women's tournament will be televised by ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPN+. This is a tremendous opportunity for Coach Fanning to take our women's program to the nation's most elite level. We need two wins this week from our ladies as well as our men.
Next week, folks will either be talking about the Sweet 16 or baseball. This is a huge weekend in MSU sports. If you are able, get out and support our teams.
Until next week,
Steve Robertson is a free-lance correspondent who writes The Robertson Report for the premium site portion of Gene's Page. Steve's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.