MSU basketball headed to Orlando

For the third straight campaign, Mississippi State is NCAA bound. It's an exciting time of the year for the Bulldog hoopsters, as well as for their many fans across the country.<P> A No. 2 seed, the highest ever under the Maroon & White banner, the Bulldogs will make their way to Orlando, Fla., March 18-21, for the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Mississippi State (25-3) will play Northeast Conference champion Monmouth (N.J.). The matchup between the No. 15 seeded Hawks (21-11) and the Bulldogs is set for 7:10 p.m. (ET) Friday.

The Southeastern Conference regular season champions, ranked among the top 10 teams in the country in the final regular season Associated Press men's college basketball poll, departed Wednesday afternoon for Orlando.

The Bulldogs are ranked No. 9 in The Associated Press Top 25 released Monday. MSU dropped five spots following its first round, 74-70, loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament held in Atlanta.

For Mississippi State, ranked as high as No. 4 in the county on two occasions during the season, the main focus is getting back to Atlanta, Ga., March 25-28, as one of the Sweet Sixteen teams.

But first the Dogs will have to take care of business a little further South at the TD Waterhouse Centre in Orlando.

"Orlando's fine," said Shane Power, who broke into the starting lineup early in the season following some extensive off-season rehab.

"A lot of people pay to go to Florida in March (Spring Break)," said Power, showing his humorous side. "So Orlando is fine.

"Hopefully, we can make a good run, but we have to stay focused and take it one game at a time," added Power, who has recovered nicely from a knee injury.

A possible No. 1 seed before the upset loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament, the dream already seems like a memory to the MSU team. Now that the possible No. 1 seed has evaporated for the Dogs, the No. 2 seed doesn't seem to bother any of the Bulldogs and especially not Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury.

"We're happy to be a No. 2 seed," he said following the Sunday Selection Show. "If we're fortunate enough to win our first two games, we'll move to Atlanta. That would be great for everyone, the fans and all, but we're not looking ahead except to the next game."

Stansbury said the team earned the No. 2 seed by winning the regular season SEC title and by going undefeated on the road this season.

"I thought our team earned it. This team has earned everything they've gotten. I'm very pleased," he said.

Monmouth is an approximately 4,000-student university in New Jersey. The Hawks received one of the NCAA's automatic bids after winning the Northeast Conference championship by downing Central Connecticut State 67-55.

Mississippi State had a No. 5 seed last year but was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Butler at Birmingham, Ala., something the Bulldogs would prefer to avoid this time around.

In the running for one of the four NCAA No. 1 seeds down the stretch, the Bulldogs were 25-2 during the regular season.

"We're happy with a No. 2. The seeding doesn't really matter," said Mississippi State co-captain Timmy Bowers. "It might be better to be a No. 2. The main thing is we have another opportunity to play."

Mississippi State received more good news to begin the week with "SEC Player of the Year" Lawrence Roberts being cleared to play. The 6-9 All-American, averaging 17 points a game, injured an ankle in the SEC Tournament while jumping out of bounds.

Stansbury said his team has responded in a positive fashion all season after experiencing a loss and he's confident they'll be ready to play in the NCAA.

"The one positive about the loss to Vanderbilt is that we've responded well in the past to each of our losses and I believe we'll be ready to play in Orlando," he said.

Duke, Kentucky, Stanford and St. Joseph's received the NCAA's No. 1 seeds in the 65-team field. The final spot in the tournament was decided Tuesday night when Florida A&M, the only team with a losing record (14-16), defeated Lehigh (20-10) to determine the 16th-seeded team in the St. Louis Regional. They will play Kentucky on Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

The Blue Devils head the Atlanta Regional which also has Big 12 strongboy Texas, ACC traditional power North Carolina and SEC champ Mississippi State, making their third straight NCAA appearance. The Dogs were a No. 3 seed two years ago, defeating McNeese State at Dallas in the first round before falling to the Texas Longhorns.

Joining Roberts in double figures for the Bulldogs is Bowers (15.3 ppg) and Winsome Frazier (13.5), returning to his home state of Florida.

"I'll have several family members coming to the game in Orlando," said Frazier, a junior from Miami. "We're happy to be going to Orlando. But we have to be focused. It's a one game season from now on."

Power is averaging just under 10 points a game with a 9.4 average. Branden Vincent averages an even 7.0 ppg and 7.3 rebounds. Marcus Campbell is scoring at a 6.4 clip and freshman guard Gary Ervin 5.1 ppg.

Monmouth is paced by 6-7 forward Blake Hamilton with a 16.3 average. Guard Dwayne Byfield also scores in double figures with a 12.3 average.

Mississippi State made it to the Final Four in 1996 as a No. 5 seed. Regionals are March 25-28 and the Final Four is April 3-5 in San Antonio, Tex.

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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