‘It’ being the annual SEC Tournament which begins Wednesday in Nashville. #12-seed Mississippi State (15-15, 6-12 SEC) has drawn #13-Louisiana State (10-20, 2-16) to open up the entire event with a 6:00 tipoff from Bridgestone Arena.
The survivor will meet Alabama in Thursday’s second game. Missouri and Auburn play the other first-day game.
“The regular season is over,” guard Quinndary Weatherspoon said. “This is a new season. Everybody’s mind changes and we’re going to try to make it as far as we can go.”
Tournament play is a fresh chapter for lots of these Dogs. College tourney play, that is, since they all have high school experiences to draw on. Howland doesn’t put a whole lot of stock in the notion even his freshman/sophomore dominated squad will be tourney-struck.
“We were in Charleston back in November,” the coach reminded. “This is the next neutral-site place. But it’s our 31st game, so there’s a lot more games behind us.”
In front of them? Well, “I’m excited about the opportunity to play in a whole new season,” Howland said. His second regular season in Starkville has been a bit too much like the first record-wise. In fact these Dogs are one game-behind last year’s in conference wins, which was not at all expected with the influx of new talent and maturing of sophomores Weatherspoon and forward Aric Holman.
All sorts of factors, not least injuries and a somewhat-improved conference as a whole, contributed to State only winning six league games in year-two. The Bulldogs themselves believe this is a better team and much closer to success than a year ago, though.
This week is the last chance to show it. “I think we’ve got a good chance honestly,” said Weatherspoon, one of just three Dogs with SEC tournament experience. And, one of those who battled health issues most of the regular season. “It’s not like we got blown out of a lot of games. If we can clean up some of the mistakes we’ve got a chance to win.”
A win which would at the very least guarantee the Bulldogs break-even for the season and end five years of losing records. Even the matchup bodes well for Mississippi State. It was LSU which provided two of their six league victories this year, after all.
And, the second came just four days earlier as State completed a sweep with an 88-76 final in Starkville. The first win came way back on January 7 in Baton Rouge by a 95-78 score. So by all rights, all the momentum should be with Mississippi State?
Howland is more cautious. “It’s hard to play a team in back-to-back games. And it’s a neutral floor.”
True. At the same time the Bulldogs have been able to dictate terms to the Tigers in both previous meetings home or hostile. Howland won’t assume anything though and expects LSU to throw some challenges.
“They’re talented. Their wings (Antonio) Blakeney and (Brandon) Sampson are really good. I like the big kid (Duop Reath) inside, he’s talented. They have a lot of weapons. So we’re going to have to play well.”
Howland knew as soon as his team walked off the home court the last time this year that a third round was right ahead. Yet Monday’s practice was not about LSU, he said. Instead Howland scripted a session around fundamentals as well as addressing ongoing weaknesses from a still-developing team.
“We try to continue to build and get better. But today will be a normal day-before practice. And we’ll keep it short with the game tomorrow.”
There was some good news for the program Tuesday. Weatherspoon was named second team All-SEC by the league coaches. Guard Lamar Peters was voted to the All-Freshman team, too.
“I credit my teammates for putting me in position to make plays for them,” said Weatherspoon, who since December has played with a left wrist ligament tear and nagging knee tendinitis. “I’m excited about getting this award.”
Mississippi State’s last SEC Tournament successes came with first-round wins in both 2013 and ’14. The latter was with then-freshman IJ Ready on the roster, the only active Dog to have enjoyed a victory in the league meet. This will be the sixth time State and LSU have meet in a conference tournament. Bulldogs teams have won the last three; in 2002, ’03, and finally ’09 en route to their last SEC Tournament championship.
That was a four-win run. To take the ’17 title would require five victories which no outside observer will give anyone a chance of. This doesn’t bother the Bulldogs at this point.
For one thing, snapping a seven-game skid Saturday has impacted attitudes all around. “It was huge,” Howland said. “Everybody was growing tired of not getting a W in close game after close game.”
Now they’ve enjoyed a much-needed change in fortune. So, why not go for a Tiger trifecta? And why change what has worked already?
“We’re approaching it the same way,” Weatherspoon said. “We played them twice, we beat them twice. I know it’s going to be hard to beat a team three times but we’re preparing the same way.”
Peters for his part is eager to experience a first SEC tourney atmosphere and opportunity.
“I’m looking forward to it. I think our chances are good, too, if we come out and play hard and be who we are.”