Monday Morning Coffee Break

You know the old saying, 'three strikes and you are out'? Well, in Mississippi State's case, it was three made free throws and you are in.

With a little over 6 seconds to go and Mississippi State basketball's team trailing by 3 points in front of 15,000+ fans at South Carolina, Jamont Gordon dribbled down the court and saw Ben Hansbrough open in the corner for a 3-point shot. While the shot was just off the mark, Ben was fouled. He then went to the free throw line with those 15,000+ fans yelling things like 'Tyler's shadow' (for those two or three of you who don't already know this, Ben is North Carolina star basketball player Tyler Hansbrough's younger brother) and calmly made all three free throws to put the game into overtime. The Bulldogs outscored the shocked Gamecocks 11-5 in overtime to pull out a dramatic come-from-behind victory.

And most fans and experts think the victory pretty much sealed MSU's chances of making the Big Dance. Count me among that group.

Ok, so Mississippi State basketball is not a guarantee to be in the NCAA Tournament no matter what the fans and experts think. But you have to admit they are sitting pretty good atop the Southeastern Conference Western Division with a 9-3 SEC record and an overall record of 18-8 with four games to go - two at home (Auburn, LSU) and two on the road (Florida, Vanderbilt).

And at the very least, they should go 2-2 in their remaining games, ending with a 20-10 overall record and 11-5 in SEC play. The 11 wins should be the second or third most in SEC play.

Add into the equation that their RPI should be in the high 30s to low 40s and that they will have won 15 of their last 20 games when the regular season is complete.

Now, all of a sudden, they have a very strong case for making the NCAA Tournament, which would be the 5th time they have appeared in the NCAA Tournament during Rick Stansbury's 10 years as head coach at MSU.

But the season didn't start off like this was an NCAA Tourney team, with State going 5-5 in their first 10 games.

Many Mississippi State fans were even beginning to resign themselves to an NIT bid .... if that, for this team.

But if those fans had looked at the losses a little more in-depth, there would have been more than a glimmer of hope for better things to come.

Three of the five losses were by 6 or less points against teams with RPIs in the 20s to 30s, including Clemson (18-7 record, 21 RPI, 84-82 score), Miami, FL (18-7 record, 38 RPI, 64-58 score) and South Alabama (20-5 record, 36 RPI, 71-67 score). Clemson and South Alabama should be NCAA Tourney teams while Miami is a bubble team that is leaning on the positive end of the bubble.

You also have to take into consideration that MSU was starting three sophomores (Ben Hansbrough, Barry Stewart, Jarvis Varnado) at the beginning of the season with mostly freshmen (Riley Benock, Elgin Bailey, Ravern Johnson, Phil Turner) as backups. The grind of having to play 27 (Varnado), 31 (Hansbrough) and 34 (Stewart) minutes per game compared to 24 minutes in the case of Hansbrough and Stewart and 13 in regard to Varnado, as they did last year, took adjustment time for the sophomores during the early games. And the freshmen, all newcomers to college ball, were still learning the ropes of the college game.

But as the season progressed, and as you should have expected, the sophomores performed better and the freshmen earned more minutes of play as they became accustomed to the college game.

Here are the facts to back up that statement.

Since the 5-5 record to begin the season, the three starting sophomores have seen their points per game increase. Barry Stewart has averaged 12.6 points per game compared to 11.2 ppg during those first 10 games. Sophomore Jarvis Varnado has averaged 8.1 ppg game compared to 5.6. And sophomore Ben Hansbrough, who missed 4 of the last 16 games due to injury and illness, has increased his output to 10.3 ppg compared to 9.6 in the first 10 games. I know the totals aren't much, but if you could add that 4.6 points a game increase to those losses, all of a sudden MSU is 7-3 instead of 5-5 in the first ten games thanks to victories over two NCAA Tourney-bound teams in Clemson and South Alabama. And folks are talking lock for the Big Dance for MSU instead of a should be an NCAA Tourney team.

As for the freshmen, while their point and rebound stats haven't changed significantly, their minutes played have. Ravern Johnson, who only played in 6 of the first 10 games of the season, has seen his minutes increase to 7.6 per game in the last 16 games (he played in all 16) compared to 3.8 in the first 10. Elgin Bailey, who played in 8 of the first 10 games and 15 of the last 16, has seen an increase from 6.6 to 7.3 while Phil Turner, who has started 11 games (1 in first 10, 10 in last 16), saw an increase from 14.0 to 21.2 minutes per game.

And there's no reason to think things won't stay the same and maybe even continue to improve.

I'll end this MMCB with another old saying since it seems to fit how this MSU Bulldog basketball team has played this year - 'it's not how you start, but how you finish that matters'.

By the way, you can listen to new Mississippi State Athletic Director Greg Byrne on my Bully Barkline radio show Tuesday night after the Mississippi State baseball game. The show originates from The Little Dooey in Starkville every Tuesday night and is on from 7 to 8 pm. If you are in the Starkville-West Point-Columbus area (we have no broadcast of the show in the Golden Triangle area at this time), come by The Little Dooey and listen to the show in person.

Have a great Bulldog week!


Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.


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