SEC Champ MSU looks only to 'next' game

There's only one team in the Southeastern Conference that has won more SEC Tournament games in the last five years than Mississippi State and that's Kentucky.<P> Going back a little further, the Bulldogs defeated Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Championship game in 1996 en route to an appearance in the Final Four. The Wildcats returned the favor last year in New Orleans, turning back the Dogs in the title match.

Many expect the top two seeds in the 2004 SEC Tournament to meet again in the championship game at Atlanta, Ga. However, for the time being, the Bulldogs will stick to the philosophy that has worked quite well for them this season, take 'em one game at a time.

Mississippi State plays the winner of the Ole Miss-Vanderbilt game at 6:30 p.m. Friday, a tough match under any circumstances. The Rebels defeated Arkansas 55-45 behind All-SEC frontliner Justin Reed and Aaron Harper, while Vanderbilt dropped a 71-61 decision to Georgia.

Mississippi State's Rick Stansbury, selected 2004 SEC coach of the Year, said both teams are very good.

"They're, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, both excellent basketball teams and I'm sure whichever one comes out of the first round game will be ready to play."

Busy reeling in several postseason individual honors, Mississippi State moved up to No. 4 in The top 25 teams in The Associated Press' men's college basketball poll released Monday, a position previously held this season before being edged by 'Bama.

In addition to Stansbury being selected "SEC Coach of the Year," Lawrence Roberts was named "Player of the Year" and "Newcomer of the Year" and senior guard Timmy Bowers was selected First Team All-SEC.

Despite the many intriguing matchups in the SEC tourney, the subject seems to always go back to a possible Kentucky vs. Mississippi State rematch in the title game which will be televised nationally by CBS.

Stansbury said he wouldn't mind playing Kentucky because that would mean the Bulldogs will be playing for the SEC Tournament championship again.

"I think we would all look forward to that because if we are playing Kentucky, then that means we are playing in the championship game," he said, adding "we're not going to look ahead because we know we will have a very tough game no matter if it's Ole Miss or Vanderbilt."

Reigning overall league champion Mississippi State won the SEC Tournament two years ago while Kentucky captured the tourney title last year. Ironically, the Wildcats held off a late rally by the Bulldogs in last year's championship game at the Superdome to claim the SEC banner.

Since the 1998-99 season, Stansbury's first year at the Starkville helm, the Bulldogs have posted a 7-4 record in the annual SEC Tournament, comparing favorably to Kentucky's 9-2 mark over the same period.

No. 4 Mississippi State (25-2, 14-2 SEC) edged No. 8 Kentucky (23-4, 13-3) for the SEC title despite being handed one of its two losses by the Wildcats early in the campaign. The Dogs wrapped up the regular season, rallying for a thrilling, 82-81, overtime win against Alabama, the only other team to beat the Maroon & White.

Stansbury said he was happy for the team to win the championship outright in one of the toughest, if not the toughest conference in the country.

The Bulldogs get a short break before their first game in the SEC Tournament, March 11-14, in Atlanta, Ga. But their focus is without a doubt on the survivor of the Ole Miss-Vanderbilt first-round match.

Rolling to a perfect record on the road (13-0, 11-0 SEC) this campaign, the Bulldogs make a strong case for one of the NCAA's four No. 1 seeds.

The "Road Warriors" put together one of their greatest comebacks ever, coming from 18 down early in the second half to defeat Alabama and sew up the overall championship. By virtue of the thrilling win at the Capstone, the Dogs edged Kentucky by one full game.

"I'm very pleased to go to Alabama and not have to share the title with anyone. For our kids to go to Alabama and play the way they did in the last few minutes of that basketball game is so special. If there's any doubt about our kids, what they're made of inside, there's another example of their focus. They never quit, never quit believing," said Stansbury during a pre-tourney press conference Monday at Humphrey Coliseum.

"Anytime you win a championship in this league, I don't care East, West, SEC Tournament championship or overall SEC championship, whatever, it's very special. For these young men to come together ... that's what makes these young men so special. It's not a team that returned four or five starters. This team returned only one starter (Timmy Bowers).

"Because of that they deserve even more credit for their work and coming together as a team. We're proud of that and we're looking forward to the next season (postseason)," said Stansbury.

"To me this is an exciting time," said Stansbury. "It's an opportunity to become champions again. It's about excitement not motivation. The kids will be excited about playing."

Stansbury said he thought any team in the tournament was capable of making it to the final round.

Selected "SEC Player of the Week" and named to the All-SEC First Team, Bowers said he thought the rest will help the Bulldogs. The MSU co-captain said he thought the Dogs could be a No. 1 seed. Among other possible No. 1 seeds, Bowers hinted - Stanford, St. Joseph's, and Duke.

Winsome Frazier said in his mind it didn't matter if MSU was a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

"I don't think it'll matter. We'll take No. 1 or No. 2. It's not up to us."

Lawrence Roberts, prime candidate for "SEC Player of the Year" honors, said his eye is focused on one game at a time and not on a possible matchup with Kentucky.

Branden Vincent said he would love the chance to play Kentucky again because it would mean the Bulldogs were back in the SEC Championship game.

"But we're taking 'em one game at a time," he said. "We know everybody will be out to beat us. We just have to go out and play like we play."

Shane Power said either a No. 1 or No. 2 NCAA seed can have its advantages and disadvantages.

"If we're a No. 1 everybody is out to knock us off. If we're a No. 2 that could motivate us."

Stansbury said I've never been one to run from expectations. "I want this team to get what they deserve, what they've earned."

For now Mississippi State is focused on returning to the site of its last SEC Tournament championship.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at

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