Stansbury: "We've Got New Life" In NIT

Naturally they would rather be dancing. But the Bulldogs will content themselves this March with a good long run in the National Invitation Tournament. Their path to Madison Square Garden even starts at home, with Mississippi State top-seed in the NIT's North regional bracket. "We've got new life and an opportunity to compete for a championship," Stansbury told Dawgs' Bite.

The Bulldogs, 18-13 and co-champions of the SEC's Western Division, will be playing Mississippi Valley State (18-15), the regular-season champs of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Game time at Humphrey Coliseum is 7:00 Tuesday, with no live telecast. The first-round winner advances to face the winner of Bradley and Providence this week.

The North region in which Mississippi State is seeded first has Florida State as the #2, Michigan #3, and Bradley fourth. By virtue of a #1 seeding the Bulldogs are guaranteed host privileges until the semifinals.

"We get to host all the way until New York City," Stansbury said. "And there were only 24 of the 32 teams selected for this tournament, eight teams had automatic bids. We feel good that those eight coaches (on the selection committee) could see our team as one of the top teams in this field."

Though the names are similar, and both schools sit beside Highway 82, the basketball teams have only played once in their history. State whipped the visiting Delta Devils 93-58 back on November 21, 2000. But Stansbury is aware of this Valley State team, coached by former Southern Mississippi head man James Green.

"I do know they're a well-coached team and James Green does a good job. They won their league, they just didn't win their tournament. So they've got a good team. We're getting the numbers on them right now." The Bulldogs will practice at their normal in-season time Monday.

State last played in the NIT in 2001. Since then much about the tournament has changed making this a more stable and attractive event. Taken over by the NCAA two years ago, the NIT no longer sells early-round games to the highest bidders or most attractive TV names. Schools do submit a mandatory base bid to prove interest, which Mississippi State did in late February. And siting is now based on straight-forward seeding rather than which host is most likely to sell tickets.

Also, under this format regular-season champions from leagues which only send their tournament winner to the NCAAs are automatically part of the NIT. This roster includes Valley as well as a MSU victim this past season, South Alabama. In all, the Bulldogs played five teams chosen for the NIT including SEC members Ole Miss, Alabama, and Georgia, as well as Clemson. State posted a 3-4 record against these five foes.

And this year the NIT trophy will go to a different home as two-time defending champs South Carolina was not invited back for a three-peat.

Bulldog players will talk more about their tournament Monday. But even before leaving Atlanta they were mentally preparing for just the sort of second chance the NIT offers. "We'll take what we get," junior center Charles Rhodes said. "It's got to be a new season for us. A new look."

The Bulldogs had maintained hopes, however slim, of returning to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence. But after losing in the semifinal round of the SEC Tournament and ending the schedule with 18 wins, Stansbury assumed even a Western Division co-championship would not suffice to merit selection. He was correct. He also proved prophetic that the winner of the MSU-Arkansas game would get the SEC's fifth NCAA berth. The Razorbacks, 81-72 winners over State in the semis, got in as a #12 seed.

As Rhodes put it, "We had our chance (at the NCAAs) but blew it at the end."

"I'm not disappointed," Stansbury said. "The only disappointment is you wanted to win more. But if you look back and reflect on this team, they accomplished a lot of things the hard way."

Seven teams State played this year did make the NCAA cut, either by automatic or at-large bids, and went 4-6 against them. Five are conference cousins including SEC regular-season and tourney champions Florida, the top-seed in the Midwest region. At-large bids went to Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The only non-SEC opponents played by State in this year's field are champs of their leagues. Winthrop beat the Bulldogs in Starkville last November, and State whipped Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at home in December.

Mississippi State has appeared in the NIT five times; in 1979, '90, '94, '99, and 2001. The last two such teams were under Stansbury, and that most recent year was the most productive as the '01 Bulldogs defeated Southern Mississippi at home, upset Pittsburgh on the road, and lost on a last-second shot to Tulsa in Starkville in the third round.

In all, State teams are 3-5 in NIT play, the other win coming in 1990 in Starkville over Baylor. Four of the eight games have been played on campus, all in Humphrey Coliseum, with a 2-2 split.

2001 was as close as a State squad has come to reaching Madison Square Garden, stopped short when a Tulsa layup rolled in right at the buzzer. But if the NIT itself has not brought great success for State, playing in this tournament has twice been a good indicator of better things to come. Coach Richard Williams and his underclassman-filled 1990 team used a couple of NIT games to prepare for their 1991 charge to the Southeastern Conference championship and State's first NCAA appearances in nearly three decades.

The 1994 team had a shorter and unsatisfying NIT stint, shipped to Kansas State for a fast loss. But again the core of the squad were underclassmen and those juniors, seniors, and freshmen went on to score State's greatest NCAA successes to-date with a Sweet 16 trip in 1995 and the Final Four run of '96.

And Stansbury's third State squad, took advantage of the NIT to revamp their post-lineup and hone the backcourt. Twelve months later the 2002 Bulldogs were winning the SEC Tournament and starting a run of four-straight NCAA tourney teams.

The national championship tournament is always Stansbury's goal. But after nine seasons in charge of a SEC program he knew better than anyone what his 2006-07 roster was and what it could become. All in all, the coach can be satisfied with the squad's development and results.

"If you had told us we would win a championship with this team, and done what we did to beat Kentucky and be this close, we'd have taken it. If we hadn't done what we did at the SEC Tournament we wouldn't even be talking NCAA."

Mississippi State in the NIT:

1979: Lost to Alcorn State 80-78 in Starkville

1990: Defeated Baylor 84-75 in Starkville; Lost at New Orleans 65-60

1994: Lost at Kansas State 78-67

1999: Lost at Colorado State 69-56

2001: Defeated Southern Mississippi 75-68 in Starkville; defeat Pittsburgh 66-61 at Pittsburgh; Lost to Tulsa 77-75 in Starkville

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