Mississippi State plays Western Michigan on the first day, in a matchup of teams that each won 26 games last season. Alaska-Fairbanks (23-7) plays Central Florida (35-6) in a matchup of radically differing geographies. The other half of the bracket pits Portland (11-17) against Utah State (25-4), and New Mexico State (13-14) against Georgia Southern (21-8).
The TOWC was first played in 1996. Mississippi State appeared in the second year, 1997, winning two of three games. Coach Richard Williams' last MSU team beat host UAF in double-overtime, lost to Gonzaga by a bucket, and beat Southwest Missouri State with Horatio Webster and Detrick White making all-tournament. Stansbury was top assistant on that coaching staff, and now gets to take his own team to the artic. This is also the first true regular season tournament State has participated in since the fall semester of 2001.
Since then Bulldog teams have been able to earn appearances in one-day events, which tend to be made-for-TV special matchups of national names. This year's State team now has two such contests on the slate. A release by the John Wooden Classic has confirmed the report posted last week on dawgsbite.com, that the Bulldogs will be playing Arizona in this year's event, set for December 5 in Anaheim, Calif. The other game pits UCLA against Boston College, with both contests played at Arrowhead Pond. Game times are still being set to fit the TV scheduling for the day.
This is MSU's first appearance in the Wooden Classic. The selection of this Bulldog team was made all but inevitable when Lawrence Roberts, one of five first-team Wooden All-Americans for 2004, announced he was returning for his senior season. State is also assured of a high pre-season national ranking now.
So is Arizona, which went 20-10 last season and 11-7 in the Pac-Ten. The Wildcats led the nation in scoring average, 87.1 points, and ended the year ranked #22 (Associated Press). Though all-America forward Andre Iquodala was a first-round draft choice, the Wildcats still have forward Hassan Adams, center Channing Frye, and guard Mustafa Shakur. Adams and Shakur were invited to the Team USA trials in June. The Wildcats are a top-ten pick in some preseason polls, even rated by some analysts a choice to win the national title.
With a pair of preseason conference favorites and a national player of the year candidate, the Bulldog-Wildcat matchup is guaranteed to draw a national TV timeslot.
State can count on another TV date, when it is announced that is. The Bulldogs return to the Sugar Bowl Classic for a third-straight year in December, taking on Virginia Tech in the first game of the day. LSU plays Florida State in the second half of this twinbill in the New Orleans Arena. Dates and times have not been posted by the Classic organizers yet (SugarBowlClassic.com). The last two games have been Saturday afternoons, but on this 2004 calendar both Christmas Day and New Years Day fall on Saturdays. The Sugar Bowl football game is on January 3.
Regardless of dates, the Bulldogs like this annual trip to New Orleans. In 2002 State edged Oklahoma in a 54-45 brawl; and last December the Dogs had an easier 72-50 time of it against Tulane. This year brings a matchup with a Tech team that went 15-14 overall and 7-9 in the Big East. This year the Hokies are in another league, having joined the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Meanwhile, Stansbury is still piecing together the rest of his pre-conference schedule. The only tentative home date listed by any opponent so far is by Santa Clara, which returns last year's game with a December 4 trip to Starkville. But now that the Dogs are in the Wooden Classic on December 5 this date is obviously in question. Nor has Xavier posted its schedule yet. The Musketeers have just had to replace their head coach as Thad Motta abruptly left town to move up the interstate and take the Ohio State job. The Bulldogs are to wrap up the three-year, regular-season series with Xavier with this December's trip to Cincinnati.
Also, Mississippi State has a contract to play Illinois-Chicago in Jackson in December. Neither school is listing a date but a MSU staffer said the game will be December 21. Though not a big ‘name' to most fans, the Flames won the 2004 Horizon League tournament and played in the NCAA Tournament. And the Bulldogs are looking into the possibility of another game in the Mississippi Coliseum this winter with Georgetown the rumored guest.
Stansbury openly prefers to play home games during the winter school break off-campus when students are gone. And while MSU's administration seems to like moving these games around the state year-by-year, the coach unabashedly favors games in Jackson for the greater turnout and annual recruiting opportunities.
David Murray is the Editor of Dawgs' Bite magazine and the featured writer for the Dawgs Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.