Talk about how special it was to win the SEC Tournament Championship.
"Anytime you win a championship, it doesn't matter if it is grade school, high school, intramural, it is important. When you win a championship in the best league in America, it is even more special.
"I think it is even more special the way this team has done it. No one expected us to be there. Going into SEC (Tournament) play, I really felt that our team was playing as well or better than anyone in the league. We finished number 2 in the West and had a first-round bye, but we had to play Florida in that first-round. That wasn't a gift by any means. We understood just how difficult that would be. We felt that Florida was one of the best teams in the league. After that game, we had to survive that second-round game against a very good LSU team that was playing well at the time. We made plays and survived. Once we got to the championship game, I don't think there could be a better stage set for it, having to play the number 1 team in the league, a big rival. And having the chance to play on center stage on national tv for a championship. It doesn't get any better than that. That is what players work for and dream about all their life. I couldn't be more proud for those young men to have had that opportunity to experience that. I have experienced it as a coach and it is very, very special. For players, when they have worked as hard as our players, you want them to experience that."
What do you know about the McNeese State team?
"We played them here last year. Basically, they have the same team back, plus they have inserted another player, Damond Williams, that is their best player. Raynell Brewer is another player that we are familiar with due to recruiting him. Ben Perkins is another kid we recruited. He went to Providence but transferred to McNeese State. They are a very experienced basketball team that is very good on the perimeter. They are very, very athletic and get up and down the floor. They have won 14 games straight in a very good league. I have been on that side of the fence at Austin Peay and know what it is like to come in as the underdog. I saw upsets on Illinois and Providence. We aren't going to overlook this team.
"This (MSU) team has done a tremendous job on staying focused on the job at hand. I want our kids to not get too high or too low. That was important during the 16 games in the SEC. You get too high on Wednesday, you get beat on Saturday. You get too low on Wednesday, you get beat on Saturday."
These players have never felt the excitement of playing in the atmosphere of an NCAA Tournament. Sometimes that effects a team. How much will the experience of playing in such a high profile game such as the SEC Tournament Championship game, a game that was played in front of a huge crowd and a national television audience, help them prepare to play in the NCAA Tournament atmosphere?
"There is no bigger stage than the SEC Tournament and SEC Tournament Championship game. I don't care if it is the NCAA Tournament. It doesn't get any bigger than that. From a standpoint of being nervous because it is a NCAA Tournament game, there will be absolutely none.
"Also, the upcoming tournament is a two-game tournament with a day's rest in between. In the SEC Tournament, we had to play three games in a row."
How are the injured players doing?
"They are all fine. We have a few bumps and bruises, but we are ok."
Talk about Marckell Patterson.
"One of the keys to this basketball team has been young men accepting their roles. Marckell is one of those guys. I guess you could look at it on paper and see that Marckell was coming back as a senior and could have looked at it as someone who would shoot a lot. But he hasn't done that. He has fit in among the pieces and accepted his role. He has done a lot of things differently for this team than he may have done last year. Last year, we depended on his scoring more than we have this year. We have managed to continue to function when he hasn't scored for us. When he does score, that gives us even more energy and we are better."
Talk about the improvement of Michal Ignerski from the beginning of the season to now.
"If we could all relate to where he has come from. Two years ago he couldn't speak English. Now, he speaks very fluent English. He had never played against the competition that he had to play against in the SEC. He played junior college basketball. I think he has made gradual progress. I think his first shell-shock was here against Kentucky. From there, we had to go on the road for two games, at Arkansas and Ole Miss. So it didn't get any easier for him. After that, I thought he started to make an adjustment. I thought he showed some relaxation against Tennessee. He has gotten better and better. There is no question, during the three games in Atlanta, he stepped up and played with his most confidence, offensively. Sometimes he gets a little loss, but he did a tremendous job guarding Bonner and Dupree. We held Bonner to 7 points and held Dupree to 8 points, both way below their averages."
Talk about Michael Gholar's play this year.
"I couldn't be prouder of the young man. I believed in him when he didn't believe in himself. I couldn't have been prouder of a young man who stepped up to the free-throw line (against Alabama near the end of the game). He was a young man who last year wouldn't have had a chance at the free-throw line because he shot 48% last season. He stepped to the line (Sunday) and wanted it. No question about it. He got hit in the eye and was shaking his head a little bit but he wanted to get to that line. He went to the line and knocked down two free-throws with what was at stake. I think that epitomizes what Michael Gholar is about. That showed toughness right there. It couldn't have happened to a better person."
Do you think Derrick Zimmerman is enjoying passing the basketball in college as much as he enjoyed scoring when he was in high school?
"I think he is learning to enjoy it. He has never had to do that in his life, so he never had felt the enjoyment of passing the ball. He averaged 32 points per game in high school. It was a role that he had to grow into. He was a great athlete playing point guard. Now he is a point guard who is a great athlete. He is not turning the ball over as much and is delivering his passes where they need to be. He is playing to his strengths and is continuing to work on his weaknesses."
[Derrick Zimmerman became only the 3rd MSU player to record 200 or more assists during a season. - Gene]
This team has played really well the past eight games. Where would you like to see improvement?
"Shooting the ball."
Was there a game where this team became a great defensive team?
"I think it started when we played Alabama here. We had our backs against the wall a little bit because we had lost that home game against Georgia. We lost to Georgia and faced the 5th ranked team the next game. I think that is where it all changed for us. We went to another level of intensity. From that point on, we have been very good. We have lost one game since then and that was the (LSU) game at Baton Rouge where we kind of gave it to them. We came back from LSU and faced an Auburn team that had just beaten Georgia and Ole Miss and we beat them by 36 points. I thought we took another step when we went to Vanderbilt (and beat them). We all know how tough it is to win at Vanderbilt. They shot the threes really well. For us to go in there and do what we did was very special. Defensively, it was one of the best efforts that you could have asked for. They got absolutely no looks, none."
Is this the best defensive team that you have ever been a part of?
"It is awfully good. It is the best that I have been around the 12 years that I have been here. I was on an awfully good one at Austin Peay, although it was on a different level, a different level athlete. This team right here is special defensively. When you hold a Bonner, Haslem and Nelson to 7, 7, and 10 points you have done something. You hold Dupree to 8 points and you do a job on Grizzard. Grizzard is a young man who can just take over a basketball game."
[During their last eight games, all victories, the Bulldogs have allowed teams an average of 57 points per game. Teams have shot 38.3% from the field during the same period. - Gene]
Compare this team to the 1996 Final Four team.
"It is a team. I think the Final Four team was a more talented team. It had a lottery pick in Erick Dampier and a high number-one round pick in Dontae Jones, a young man who was capable of taking over a game by himself. We don't have a player like that. This team functions as a unit. It is built around a very good center and a very good point guard and we have very good players around them. The skill level is different. We are quicker in the perimeter with Zimmerman and Timmy (Bowers). This team is quicker and more athletic. We are not as big. (The Final Four) team had Erick Dampier at 7-foot and Russell Walters at 6-10. This team plays guys that are 6-8.5, Austin, and Gholar at 6-5. This team can change its pace better. The Final Four team was not as versatile. This team can play fast or slow."
Talk about winning the SEC Championship.
"I am very excited. This is my first time to win a championship in the SEC, especially when people didn't believe that we could."
Upsets happen in tournament play all the time. Do you think you guys might look past a 14 seed?
"We don't look past anybody. One thing that we have learned is to take one game at a time. A couple of teams have probably looked past us this year and we beat them."
Will it help you guys having played McNeese State last season?
"We know McNeese State likes to get up and down the floor. They play aggressive and have pretty good players. We know their style of play. It will help us out a lot."
Talk about finally making the NCAA Tournament.
"It is big for us. Two or three years ago we came so close to making it in. The feeling yesterday, even though we were in, when we saw our name was a very special feeling. But there is still a lot of basketball left to be played."
What do you think about McNeese State playing a fast-pace game?
"We are a great transition team and we like to run it. Not many teams can keep up with us. We have Z at the point and Mike and myself. That is probably a plus for us that they play an up-tempo game."
Talk about McNeese State.
"We don't really know much about them other than when we played them here last year. We've heard that they are pretty good and won their tournament."
Does it matter to you that you may wind up playing Texas in Dallas if you defeat McNeese State? That is almost like a home game for Texas.
"No, we are just going to look at it as another game. We know it will be a home game for them. We will just do what we do as a team, defend and rebound. As long as we can defend and rebound, we can beat anybody in the country. That is the way we feel right now."
When did that defend and rebound mentality become such a mind-set of this team?
"We really didn't see it at first. As we defended and rebounded and continued to win games, we really started to buy into it."
Have you recovered, physically?
"I'm still trying to get my leg right. It is still a little sore. Hopefully, it will be ready by Friday. I'm going to continue to do treatment."
Will you be able to practice this week?
"Yeah, I will be practicing."
How bad was your pulled hamstring during the SEC Tournament?
"It was bad. I couldn't even walk when I tried to get up Thursday. It was like a catch in my leg and I couldn't even walk. We did treatment on it (Friday) and worked some of the soreness out and I was able to go."
Talk about the depth of this team.
"Nobody really cares who goes out and scores 25 points. We know that everybody is capable of doing it on this team. We just go out every game and try to play as a team. If one man is having a good night, we will continue to give him the ball. That is the key to our success this year."
McNeese State likes to run. How will you guys handle that?
"We like to run too. If they want to run, we are going to make them run on the (defensive) end too. Our guards and big men can run. They have a seven-foot center, so we will try to wear him down."
What is the significance for you personally of win the SEC Tournament Championship?
"It is big because of where we have been the past few years. We struggled my freshman year and last year we were inconsistent. This year, we finally put the pieces together."
What do you remember about McNeese State from last year when you played them in Starkville?
"The thing I remember about their game is we didn't play well. McNeese State was a good team last year and they had good guards. In fact, one of their guards is in the NBA right now, playing for the Houston Rockets. They came in with a good gameplan and we didn't respond well to what they were doing. That was last year's (MS) team. I think this year's (MSU) team is totally different from last year's team due to our style of play.
"With that said, you still have to give credit to McNeese State, because they are a good ball club. I think they have won 14 in a row after being 7-8 early in the season. You can't overlook them. They gave us trouble last year and probably have confidence they can do the same thing this year."
What is the significance for you personally to win the SEC Tournament Championship?
"For me, it is the most success in my career. I never experienced this before even when I was on my National team when we went to the quarter-finals and semi-finals."
Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. The URL for Gene's Page is http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com. You can contact him by emailing email@example.com.