Mississippi State not only will appear again in the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs are hosting. They have been awarded opening-round play in Humphrey Coliseum beginning Friday. The Bulldogs take on Chattanooga at 1:30ct for ESPN2 telecast.
The other half of the Starkville bracket has Michigan State playing Belmont at 11:00am. For Coach Vic Schaefer and squad, hosting is well-earned…and partly-gifted.
“It worked out just as intended,” Schaefer quipped.
They probably aren’t smiling in East Lansing. #16-ranked (AP) Michigan State comes to Starkville as the higher seed, a #4. This should have meant hosting for the Spartans. But the other MSU’s arena is holding another event, opening the door for #5 seed and 15th-ranked Mississippi State.
“So, we’re a 5-seed getting to host,” Schaefer said. “That’s bad scheduling at Michigan State, that’s good scheduling at Mississippi State.”
Athletic director Scott Stricklin spilled a few NCAA beans in greeting the Humphrey Coliseum crowd gathered for the selection show. He spoke of being “optimistic” about hosting, which might have been taken as just keeping hopes alive. But when early in the show Florida State’s name popped up as a #5 seed on the road, everyone turned intense because projections had the Seminoles as a #4 seed and host. And, the likely destination for the Bulldogs.
Instead, State stays home. Which Schaefer stressed is not at all a free ride to the sweet 16. “You’re going to play somebody good, it’s the NCAA Tournament. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
UTC is 24-7 and Southern Conference champions with a 12-2 league record. The Lady Mocs also won the conference tournament. And, “(Coach) Jim Foster has been around the block a bunch,” Schaefer said.
Michigan State is 24-8 and was third in the Big Ten at 13-5, with a runner-up finish in the league tourney to Maryland. They too take on a conference champion in their opener, as Belmont (24-8, 13-3) ran away with the Ohio Valley and won that league’s tourney as well.
“They’re going to go on the road and probably have a little chip on their shoulder,” said Schaefer of the Spartans.
Mississippi State (26-7, 11-5 SEC) was pins-and-needles about hosting ever since playing in the SEC Tournament finals, where they lost to #1 seed South Carolina. A NCAA bid was assured, of course. And whatever else these Bulldogs had written a page in program history by tying for second in the SEC regular season, the highest finish ever.
But hosting this March was the stated goal practically from the final horn that ended the 2015 season, in the second round of the Durham regional with a loss to host Duke. “I’m so proud for our players,” Schaefer said. “They worked their hearts out. To see them rewarded with this opportunity is really special.”
This entire season has been special already, Stricklin stressed, coming after a 2015 that set plenty of standards itself.
“It’s hard to top that, and in a lot of ways we’ve done that this year,” Stricklin said. “This was in reference to both season- and game-attendance records, as well as the second-place SEC finish and for a stretch a top-ten ranking.
If there is any down-side to State’s assignment, it is who this sub-regional is paired with. The Starkville winner is in the Regional all 67 other teams wanted to avoid, heading to Bridgeport, Conn., to almost assuredly face #1 overall seed and undefeated Connecticut. The Bulldogs will worry about that later, if at all.
“Getting to play at home is the overwhelming factor,” Schaefer said. Which brings up the other and much-smaller negative: a 1:30 game time as set by ESPN. State’s coach had another quip ready of course.
“You saw the early start, so everybody gets a half day off!” With spring break the student crowd will not be present, but women’s basketball tends to draw much more from the community anyway.
And after packing the Hump for a regular season game with South Carolina, coach and officials are confident about turnout for this first-ever event. “I know Starkville will roll out the red carpet and do a great job hosting these teams,” Schaefer said.
“And we need to pack the Hump. This is our opportunity. People have heard about the environment at Mississippi State University. It’s our time to shine.”