Maybe Varnado should have shared his insight with more than senior guard Begley. Because sophomore guard Barry Stewart actually experienced a few moments of tension as the team, staff, and media watched the selection show. Not anxiety, really, much less fear because the Bulldogs were certain of an at-large bid…right?
"When we saw the first two brackets and our name didn't pop up…you still never know!" Stewart admitted. "It was relief." Now Mississippi State must turn relief to preparation, just as the Bulldogs transition from one tournament to the next. The most important of them all, Coach Rick Stansbury reminds.
"This is your next and last season," the coach said. "And it's a special moment."
Stansbury has known many of those special moments as a Bulldog coach. He was an assistant on the 1995 Sweet 16 squad and '96 Final Four heroes. Since becoming head coach Stansbury has directed now five teams to NCAA berths and three more into the NIT. So he knows what he will be telling these 2008 Dogs as they head into the post-season.
"You want kids to enjoy it, to live every moment of this. And it will be a lot more special 10 years from now, a lot of players never get this opportunity."
Only one of the current Bulldogs has had a prior NCAA opportunity. Senior forward Charles Rhodes was a backup on the 2005 team that played in Charlotte, N.C., beating Stanford and losing to Duke. Rhodes was not available for Sunday comment, but will talk with media Monday. Then again, Sunday was for the players who finally get to experience what the ‘big dance' is really about.
"I'm definitely excited about it," junior guard Jamont Gordon said. "It's my first time and I'm ready. I was always watching it when I was younger. I've tried my hardest to get here, and I'm excited about it."
Soph guard Ben Hansbrough was the calmest of the starters on this subject. He had forecast a seeding from seventh-to-ninth after all, counting on a bid with no tension at all. "I mean, a lot of the teams jumping up and down were bubble teams. We knew we were getting in, we just didn't know where we'd be playing."
Or who, until the Ducks popped up on the other side of the matchup. Now that they have a name, the Bulldogs need to know more. Much more. "As much as any team on that whole list, I probably know least about Oregon than all of them," Stansbury said. "Most of the teams I know the styles, I've seen them play. I don't say I haven't seen Oregon play, but that's one program I'm not familiar with. But we'll have some film and get familiar with them the next couple of days." In fact State already has some video of the Ducks, just not formal scouting tapes. "We've been taping tournaments games in every conference the last two weeks," Stansbury explained. "I know we have some already on Oregon, not all we need but some. We'll get some sent overnight."
Mississippi State has never met Oregon in basketball. Bulldog teams are 4-8 against other Pac-10 clubs.
Stansbury let the team go after the selection show and media meetings, so he and the staff could begin the groundwork on game-prep. They will have a Monday practice…everything after that hinges on Friday's game time though it's likely the Bulldogs will go to N.Little Rock Wednesday. What Stansbury does know, "I like that Friday game. I've been on both sides of that coin, and definitely the Friday game is better." Not, of course, that travel is much of a factor in a trip this short. It's an extra day to scout and scheme for a completely unfamiliar foe.
As to the site, this was the best news of the day. "It gives us an advantage with the great fans we have," Hansbrough said. "We had great support in Atlanta." Ticket information will be available Monday as well, though this being the NCAAs the number of ducats available through the schools is never enough to meet a tithe of demand.
"I think it's great we're being sent to Little Rock, it's good for our fans," Stansbury said. "That's one of the positive things about it. And I like playing on Friday." So should those fans as getting off on Good Friday will be easier than usual.
Yet with the positives comes at least one negative, not that any Bulldog would put it thus. The 8/9 game is paired with a region's top-seed, the team projected to get to the Final Four. And by any measure Memphis is a favorite to reach San Antonio, with all due respect to Texas-Arlington. Keeping total attention on Oregon won't be so easy at first, at least.
"We try to take it one by one game," said Hansbrough. "But definitely that's a team we'd look forward to. And if we bring it I think we're capable of beating any team in the country." And speaking of anticipation, quite a few Dogs would really, really like a shot at the Tigers. "With me, Barry, and Jamont being from Tennessee, if we beat Oregon we'll play Memphis," said Varnado. "That will be big for us."
"No, you don't look ahead in the NCAA Tournament," clarified Stansbury. "Absolutely no chance of that happening." Or there shouldn't be now after State's experience in Atlanta. When the Georgia Dome was damaged by a tornado, while the Bulldogs were beating Alabama in overtime, the tourney had to move across town to Georgia Tech's arena. This meant MSU's semifinal foe, either Georgia or Kentucky, would be playing a second game in nine hours. Then when Georgia knocked off the Wildcats in overtime an unavoidable sense of confidence left State's Dogs flat against the other Dogs.
The outcome was a startling 64-60 victory for Georgia, which went on to an even more improbable Sunday win over Arkansas to take the title and earn an automatic NCAA berth…the lowest SEC seed ever to go dancing. The MSU Bulldogs did take a tiny bit of consolation in watching Georgia win the crown…but knew they should have been playing Sunday and awaiting their NCAA assignment afterwards.
"We expected to turn it on," Hansbrough said. "And you can't play like that." Gordon noted that the loss meant MSU was a eight-seed and in a top-seed's bracket. "If we'd won we'd be a higher seed. We didn't play our best in the SEC Tournament."
"Those lines, you can't tell who slides where and why," Stansbury said. "We'll take the eight-seed, I know it's difficult."
But however difficult, this is what Mississippi State has worked for all season. Or the past three seasons, since that 2005 NCAA trip. Stansbury thought last year's team deserved a bid after a SEC West co-championship and a win at the SEC tourney. This year the Bulldogs eliminated any question by taking the Division outright and topping 20 wins before tourney time. Maybe in the coach's mind the Bulldogs deserved a better seeding, but "Where it is is what it is. You get in that tourney and take them one at a time," he said.
"We were 5-5 at one point. We won 17 of last 22 and lost one game in the SEC we were supposed to win. That was yesterday, the only game we lost all year we were favored to win. Not a lot of teams can go through a season and say that."
But only one team can go through the whole NCAA Tournament and say it is the champion. The Bulldogs have as fair a chance as anyone else regardless of seeding and siting. The SEC tourney letdown is in the past, the dancing begins this week.
"We're ready," Stewart said. "We've got another chance. From now on every game could be our last game."