NIT Trip A "Special Opportunity" For Bulldogs

Naturally his Bulldogs would rather be preparing for the capitalized Final Four. So, Coach Rick Stansbury says, would West Virginia. Yet he sees plenty worth playing for when the Bulldogs and Mountaineers meet in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals. "We're excited about the opportunity to come to New York, Madison Square Garden. To play this time of year, it's special."

This special opportunity for Mississippi State (21-13) arrives Tuesday, with a 6:00 (ct) semifinal-round game against WVU (25-9) in the Garden. Clemson and Air Force play afterwards, with both games to be televised on ESPN2. The winners meet Thursday for the NIT championship. For their part the Bulldogs do intend to make the most of the opportunity.

"It's good for us because it lets everybody see how good we are, all over," guard Jamont Gordon said Friday.

In Stansbury's opinion, his team has shown how good they are to reach the NIT's version of the final four. "Just to be one of eight teams playing this time of year," as he said before joining the team for Friday's practice. "Now we're going to go on that bigger stage."

And on the long road. After scoring three home victories—romps, really, over Mississippi Valley State, Bradley, and Florida State—the Bulldogs have to leave the friendly confines of Humphrey Coliseum and play in the world-famed arena in New York City. If it is any consolation, NIT officials have designated Mississippi State as the ‘home' team for Tuesday evening. While purely nominal, the Bulldogs can read something into this title.

After all, they stormed through three-straight NIT home games with an average victory margin of 21 points. This was after State won the last four regular-season home contests, also by healthy scores. But after evaluating West Virginia tape Stansbury will be looking for any sort of advantage available even if it's just via label.

"We have our work cut out for us," Stansbury said. "We're playing an excellent basketball team in West Virginia, well schooled, well coached. I have a lot of respect for John Beilein and the job he's done and where he's been." Beilein is going for his 550th career win Tuesday. One of those victories was at Stansbury's expense, even, if at another school. Beilein spent five seasons as head coach at Richmond and in 2000-01 came to Starkville and won 83-72.

The next year, Stansbury's Dogs went to Richmond and won 71-57, and 15 days later in a re-match in a Las Vegas tournament State won again 74-72. Stansbury has not faced his friend with the Mountaineers; in fact this will be the first-ever meeting of the programs. Beilein has 102 wins in five seasons at WVU, with NCAA teams in 2005 and '06 and NIT trips in 2004 and this year.

That success is easy to explain and very difficult to prepare for, Stansbury said. "They're different, they play a different style offense and defense. That's what makes this such a challenging game."

The differences start on offense where WVU goes with a Princeton-style attack. Not a complete copy of the scheme made famous by the Tiger program in the 1990s, but structured similarly with an open post, back-cuts and string of screens that drive defenders to distraction. "You don't see styles like this very often," Stansbury said.

"And defensively they play a different type of 1-3-1 zone. You don't see a lot of 1-3-1s nowadays and they consistently play it and mix it up with a little man. There are teams that might throw it at you as a trick for a play or two here or there, but it's their primary defense. And they're so much better at it."

Moreover, the Mountaineers have been tested over a tough schedule and scored 25 victories with a 9-7 record in the Big East. So Stansbury does not expect West Virginia getting rattled by the venue, the situation, or the opposition. "They're a team that because of that system you'd better have as much poise as they have. And when they make shots they're really difficult to beat. But I haven't seen anybody take them out of what they want to do.

"They're a pattern team and have an option or counter for everything you do. But we've got to be able to contain them, contest their shooters, then if we get stops utilize our quickness in transition before they get that zone set. But you have to get stops."

Four Mountaineers average double-digits so there is no one player to be stopped, either. Still the guy who will get first priority is forward Frank Young scoring 15.0 per game for the year and over 24 points in his three NIT contests. The 6-5 senior epitomizes the tag of ‘gunner' as he is 107-of-255 from the arc this season. "We haven't played a kid that's made 107 three-pointers and we've played some pretty good people." Stansbury was just barely correct there as Tennessee's Chris Lofton ended the year with 106 treys.

But almost the entire WVU lineup can pop the three; guard Alex Ruoff has 68 for the year, guard Darris Nichols 47, and forward Joe Alexander 40. This, from a team that averages just under 73 points but shoots 46% overall and 37% at the arc. So while the Mountaineers don't fire at will they do shoot with purpose and proficiency, which will put a premium on Bulldog defensive discipline.

"It's only a handful of teams that run that offense," Stansbury said, adding "Two of those teams will be up there. They're similar to Air Force."

Not that the Bulldogs are thinking of the Falcons or the other possibility, a re-match with Clemson, in Thursday's championship game. To get there means getting by the Mountaineers in the semifinals. Both participants were let down at the end of their conference tournaments by not receiving NCAA bids, though both also expected to end up in the NIT after losing their second contest in the SEC and Big East meets.

But given opportunity in the other tournament, each has made the most of it and now get to play for a national title all the same. "And to have a chance to play on one of the biggest media stages in the country, the publicity it brings to your program," Stansbury said.

"And for your kids to be practicing and gaining valuable experience. Experience is invaluable and there's no value you can put on what our program gains from it."

The Bulldogs were to practice Saturday afternoon at The Hump, and fly out of Columbus this Sunday to New York.

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