Ranked 20th in this week's Associated Press wire service poll and 21st in the current ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, coach Rick Stansbury's 21-9 Bulldogs are coming off a runner-up finish at this past weekend's SEC Tournament in New Orleans, where they knocked off SEC Western Division rivals Mississippi (73-64) and LSU (76-61) before dropping a hard-fought 64-57 decision to now-top-ranked Kentucky in the championship contest played at the Louisiana Superdome. With a 9-7 conference mark on the year, the Bulldogs closed out the 2002-03 regular season by claiming their first SEC Western Division title since capturing back-to-back SEC West crowns during the 1994-95 (NCAA Sweet 16) and 1995-96 (NCAA Final Four) campaigns, which also previously marked the last time Mississippi State had appeared in successive NCAA Tournaments prior to this year.
As they have throughout much of the 2002-03 regular season, the Bulldogs enter postseason tournament competition leading the Southeastern Conference and ranking among the Top 20 national team leaders in scoring defense (60.2 ppg), field-goal percentage defense (40.1%) and rebounding margin (+6.2). Mississippi State also tops the conference in steals (8.73 spg) as a team.
Individually, MSU is powered by the inside presence of two-time all-SEC center Mario Austin, who leads the Bulldogs and ranks among the league's Top 10 leaders in scoring (15.4 ppg; 10th in SEC), rebounding (7.6 rpg; 5th) and field-goal percentage (52.8%; 3rd) for the second consecutive year. On the perimeter, State is ignited by the ultra-athletic, veteran backcourt tandem of senior point guard Derrick Zimmerman (9.1 ppg, 5.6 apg & 4.2 rpg) and junior Timmy Bowers (14.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg & 3.0 apg), who were both named to last week's SEC All-Tournament Team. Needing one more MSU victory to tie Jay Walton with 81 career wins as the all-time winningest basketball player(s) in school history, Zimmerman also needs just two more assists to give him 511 for his career and enable him to surpass current leader Al Perry (510; 1975-78) as the school's all-time leader for career assists.
Based in Indianapolis, Ind., Butler University sports an impressive 25-5 overall record and 14-2 mark as the regular-season champions and tournament runners-up of the Horizon League. Guided by second-year head coach and former Butler player Todd Lickliter, the Butler Bulldogs start a veteran lineup comprised of four seniors and one junior. Featuring four players averaging double figures in scoring, BU ranks among the Top 25 NCAA team leaders in scoring defense (60.1 ppg), three-point field goal percentage (38.9%), 3-pointers made per game (8.4 treys/game) and turnovers per game (10.6). Senior guard Brandon Miller paces Butler in scoring (12.3 ppg) and assists (3.3 apg), while senior post player Joel Cornette averages 11.3 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds per game.