Mississippi State (21-11) is seeded fourth in its NIT region, and the Minutemen (22-11) are fifth. The winner advances to face the winner of Seton Hall vs. Stony Brook at a time and date to be set. This is the first-ever meeting of the programs though were in the 1996 NCAA Final Four.
Certainly both would prefer to be in the main tournament this year, too. Though, making the NIT is a step up for the Minutemen. UMass finished tied for fifth in the Atlantic 10 and are in post-season play for the first time since 2008, another NIT season. So reports are that this team is excited to still be playing ball in March.
Mississippi State? Stansbury does not deny the obvious. "It'll be a huge challenge for us, as you know," he agreed Monday morning, still sounding numbed at his team's failure to stay on a NCAA Tournament track. "It's a huge disappointment for us. So it will be a huge challenge. It's not like we've got a Wednesday or Thursday game, we've got a Tuesday game."
That last item doesn't ring entirely true if Stansbury is speaking about physical preparedness. The Bulldogs will have had a long and unplanned break since last Thursday evening. They went to the SEC Tournament last week needing, all agree, just one more victory to lock up a NCAA at-larger berth. The result was a defeat, and a not entirely competitive one either, by #11 SEC seed Georgia.
The setback sent State home early and gave them an entire weekend to watch and wonder if 21 wins and an 8-8 conference record were sufficient. They found out the hard way Sunday afternoon.
"Naturally everybody is disappointed," Stansbury said today. "There's a lot of anticipation still, even though we know we didn't play well down the stretch. You're sitting there and for the most part everybody had you in until you wake up Sunday morning; and had you on the edge still. But when you leave the door open for somebody else to make the decision you expect the worst. We had an opportunity to close the door in many situations. That's what makes it more difficult."
And, what the coach means when he talks now about a short stretch to prepare for Tuesday. Bulldog bodies are well rested; it is the shaken mindset which concerns Stansbury now.
"We've got to get through that, and get ready for a tough UMass team and a quick turnaround."
How tough? Stansbury points to Minuteman victories over Xavier and Temple among others, and a close loss to A-10 tournament champs St. Bonaventure. Though, UMass also goes into post-season having lost five of their last nine contests. Still Stansbury sees "a very good opponent" coming to Humphrey Coliseum.
"They have great balance, basically five guys in double-figures." To be exact there are three Minutemen netting double-digits for the season but four in conference play, led by --- Chaz Williams with a 16.4-season average. His tendencies are simple to scout, too; Williams shoots better at the three-point arc than he does overall and has 54 treys. In fact four Minutemen have hit fifty threeballs this season, showing the balance Stansbury referred to.
And given Mississippi State's established issues defending the arc, showing where this game is likely to be played. "So it will be a tough matchup for us," Stansbury said. "They play eight guys and can really shoot the basketball." Not only that, but the Minutemen seem to want to be in the NIT.
Stansbury says emotions wouldn't matter if UMass was not also a good team, which is true. By that same token though, a Mississippi State team that has played well at times this season has also shown what can, and usually will, happen when the Dogs show up flat. And if the head coach sounded still-down this morning it raises concerns how motivated MSU can get between now and 6:00 tomorrow.
"You keep score, hey, you come to play," Stansbury said. "That's the way it is. You've got to be mature enough to put the disappointment behind you. It's another opportunity to play and compete."
Stansbury knows something about competing in the NIT. This will be his fifth team taken to the secondary tournament and he owns a 6-4 record so far, with a 5-1 mark in home games. Three of those victories came in 2007 when another disappointed State squad made a run to the NIT semifinals, only to fall on a literal last-second shot to West Virginia.
It was another, and again literal, last-second shot that ended State's most recent NIT appearance with a second-round loss in the Hump to North Carolina. That 2010 team was also coping with non-NCAA letdown though that case was far more painful, even infuriating. The SEC Tournament finalists were denied while a couple of teams beaten in the league meet did get bids. Stansbury still cannot bring himself to talk much about that Sunday in Nashville.
This is a different Dog team and for the most part a very different case. State was sitting 19-5 at one point, a game out of second place in the SEC and ranked 15th nationally. What happened then was arguably the second most-talented lineup in the league stumbled through three weeks of losses including three setbacks to far inferior opponents. The NCAA berth wasn't really lost in New Orleans, that SEC tourney no-show only finished what began before.
"We had a bad two-and-a-half week stretch and lost five in a row, and had opportunities to close all those games out," said Stansbury. "That's the toughest thing. There's been times in the past we played well down that stretch. It's all different this time, we played our way out."
State's disappointment is strongest of course, but the SEC as well is let down because Bulldog failure meant only four league teams made the NCAAs. Four more did default to the NIT, but it was another off-year in basketball for the nation's leading conference in football and baseball. Naturally SEC coaches all said today the league was shorted on bids; Stansbury wasn't going that far himself.
"You know, hey, right now anything I say would sound like sour grapes. I've always said if you win enough games you get in, and if you leave it in someone else's hands don't be disappointed. When you leave decisions up to other people whether you're in or out then don't ever be disappointed. You've got to win enough to take yourself out of any bubble situation."
Inevitably, given that State is spending a third-straight March watching others go mad, the question is being raised this week about Stansbury's own job security. He took four-straight teams to the NCAAs in 2002-05, but in the seven seasons since Bulldogs have gotten bids in only 2008 and '09. And that latter berth was only earned by a four-win run to the automatic SEC Tournament berth. That was the last of the three SEC championships (2004 regular season, 2002 and '09 tournament) won by Stansbury.
"Ain't worried about any of that at all," the coach responded today to the question. "I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about how you perform in the NIT."
As four-seed, the winner would be playing on the road in the next round. So for State fans this is one last chance to watch seniors Dee Bost, Brian Bryant, and Taylor Luczak on the home court. For that matter junior forward Arnett Moultrie is likely to test early NBA entry. A couple of other Bulldog regulars, junior Renardo Sidney and freshman DeVille Smith, have sent mixed signals through the season about their after-season intentions.
Bost and Moultrie are both first-team All-SEC picks and Moultrie is the 2012 Howell Trophy winner. Rookie Rodney Hood is completing a Freshman All-SEC season, too.
Mississippi State is in spring break this week which will impact attendance, as shown by prior NIT home games. Most recently, in 2010 when 4,400 watched a week-night win over Jackson State. A weekend second-round game with North Carolina though drew 9,471. And in 2007 after week-day gates of 5,500 and 5,700, a third-round match with Florida State brought 9,013 to the Hump.