#2-Seed State Takes on Troy; DePaul-Northern Iowa Meet at 11:00am

Since last March the Lady Bulldogs have planned on hosting NCAA Tournament play again. Now 2017 is official, as is the guest list for this weekend’s Starkville regional.

The NCAA has assigned Mississippi State one of the four #2 national seeds, along with first- and second-round play in Humphrey Coliseum for March 17/19. “No question, I think we earned it,” Coach Vic Schaefer said. “I’m proud of what we did in our schedule to earn it. But now we’ve got to go live it.”

The life-and-death of NCAA Tournament play begins as the Bulldogs take on Troy at 1:30 Friday for ESPN2, following a 11:00am matchup of DePaul and Northern Iowa. The winners meet Sunday, time TBA, playing to advance to the Oklahoma City Regional for the third and fourth rounds.

“It’s a good matchup,” senior guard Dominique Dillingham. “It’s a lot of good teams. But we’re a good team ourselves. So we’re just going to have to play our best basketball and go from there.”

Baylor is the top seed in this Regional ahead of Mississippi State. This Regional winner is paired with that of the Stockton Regional for the Final Four in Dallas, March 31/April 2.

Mississippi State (29-4) had some lingering hopes of scoring one of those four #1 seeds after finishing second in both the SEC regular season and the conference tournament. Instead they are a #2 and, by the NCAA’s own listing, the highest of twos. It is still the best seeding for Bulldog basketball ever and the second year Mississippi State will host the opening weekend.

“The committee rewarded us. At the same they put some tough people in front of us,” Schaefer said. “But this time of year everybody is good. So you go to work tomorrow knowing who you’re going to play.”

And, shortly after learning the who, Schaefer was told when. It wasn’t exactly the reward he wanted for his team or Bulldog fans.

“I hate that we’ve got to play on Friday afternoon at 1:30. I’m wanting 7,500 or 8,000. I may have to send out that letter again excusing everybody from the office early, but I’ll be glad to do that.”

That ‘letter’ is the unwritten plea Schaefer made a year ago when Humphrey Coliseum history was made by hosting NCAA play the first time. The circumstances were doubly unique as Michigan State was top-seed but unable to host with a facility conflict. Humphrey Coliseum was up to the opportunity.

A Friday afternoon crowd of 5,115 (there are no giveaway tickets for postseason) watched those Bulldogs beat Chattanooga 60-50. Two days later 7,094 watched a thriller with State out-scrambling the Spartans 74-72. Michigan State’s coach famously said afterwards the 7,000 sounded like 70,000.

“Playing at home is just amazing,” Dillingham said. “We have the best fans in the country and they always give us that extra energy we need.”

Mississippi State goes into the postseason ranked #7 by Associated Press, down from the February record-high of #2 before losing three of the last five games. Bulldog losses were twice to #3-ranked South Carolina and once each to #18 Kentucky and unranked Tennessee. Rankings don’t match RPI in most cases.

What matters is either a whole season’s body of work, or late-year momentum. Troy has both.

The Trojans (22-10) have some of both. They are coming off a Sunbelt Conference Tournament championship run with three double-digit victories to earn the automatic NCAA berth.

They are a 15-seed of course, and are 0-2 against SEC teams this year with losses at Auburn and Tennessee; both NCAA at-large entrants now. State hasn’t shared a court with Troy since 2012 but Schaefer knows this is a high-speed, end-to-end offense and unafraid to play their game anywhere aainst anyone.

“We know how good they are. So we’ve got our work cut out for us in our first game.” Plus, like most women’s teams that don’t draw well at home, playing in front of a real crowd will only energize the Trojans too.

The SEC is well-represented again in the NCAAs. Champions South Carolina got the #1 seed State wanted and will host this weekend, but oddly was assigned to the Stockton Regional. Instead Kentucky, a #4 seed, is in the local Lexington Regional; as is Auburn.

Missouri is in the Stockton bracket; while joining State in the Oklahoma City 16-team field are Tennessee and LSU. They are in the other half-bracket with Baylor, while State and Washington lead this half-bracket.

All those familiar names remind Schaefer what has pushed his team among the elite. And, what ought have prepared them for the national tournament. “You’ve got 16 rival games every year. It’s so demanding.”

Schaefer gave the Dogs a few days-off after their run to the SEC Tournament finals. They’ve returned to work and now can start real game preparations. With, Dillingham said, goals that go beyond Humphrey Coliseum. Or even the sweet sixteen appearance of last March.

“This has been the best of my four years. So I hope to go out with a bang.”

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