What is official is State, the third and last SEC team to qualify for the NCAAs, has been seeded 13th in one of the tougher-looking regional brackets. Washington is #4, though the Huskies might take some offense at that as well since they emerged as the top team in their Pac-10 league. The winner will play the winner of Purdue-Northern Illinois on Saturday.
"It's a long way," guard Dee Bost said of the upcoming trip. "But we just have to go play our hardest, and we know we can win it."
That was certainly the attitude the Bulldogs took to Tampa. Knowing their best and probably only chance of making the national tourney was to take the automatic berth, State fortunately put together their best four consecutive outings of the entire season. At least, the best in terms of defense, rebounding, and timely offense. That style, the trademark of previous Rick Stansbury squads if not often this one this year, served Mississippi State very well in beating Georgia, South Carolina, LSU, and finally Tennessee.
"We felt this league was balanced enough there were eight to ten teams that could win that tournament," Stansbury said. "No question we felt like we were one of them, that our team was put together to have a chance to win a tournament in a four-day setting." The '09 Bulldogs became only the fourth SEC team to claim the conference tournament by winning four-straight days.
Stansbury said the key was first getting some separation in the first two games that allowed the regulars just a bit of bench-time to prepare for the third match with LSU. "And I thought once we got to LSU it wasn't a lot of motivation needed. That was a tough, gritty, hard-fought game." In which State, twice beaten by the Tigers in the regular schedule including a double-overtime heartbreaker at home, just out-toughed the league champs by ten points.
Which set up the all-or-nothing shot at a hot Tennessee team. "We weren't going to let fatigue be a reason or excuse," Stansbury said. But he realistically knew the stains were showing, especially for skinny center Jarvis Varnado in the first half. And in a comment unusual for coaches, Stansbury said Sunday didn't come down to who handled the play-calling better.
"Halftime and timeouts there wasn't a lot about X-and-Os. A lot of it was understanding where the time was on that clock and get every ounce of emotion and energy we had. And that's what we got, down that stretch we made most of the effort plays. It wasn't a game of beauty offensively, it was two hard-fought teams defensively."
And all of a sudden defense is something these Dogs are doing well. It certainly was Varnado's calling card as he blocked 22 shots in four days and was the literal centerpiece of a squad that held the last three foes under 40% shooting overall and less than 30% at the arc. Varnado was named the tournament Most Valuable Player and Stewart to the all-tourney team after averaging a team-best 14.3 points with eight treys…and 25 made free throws. "The key stat was we shot I think 60 more free throws," Stansbury said. 64, to be exact.
"I never thought I'd get MVP but I thank God for the achievement," said Varnado, who arrived at the Hump still wearing one whole net around his neck. "I'm going to leave it in my room, add to my trophy collection," he said. The other net belonged to lone senior Brian Johnson who chose the end of his last college season to play his best ball. Johnson said he would sleep with his net on.
But when he and the rest of the squad wake up Monday, all attention has to turn to a quick preparation for the Huskies. State will only have one whole day at home, leaving Tuesday so to be in Portland for Wednesday practice and media obligations. The hurried schedule bothers Stansbury.
"As coaches we've talked about the SEC Tournament, it needs to be some type of consideration for teams that have to play on Sunday and turn around and play on Thursday. They shouldn't have to play until Friday. But we're just happy to be going, we're happy to be playing, we don't care where they send us."
This is the sixth team Stansbury has taken to the NCAAs, and if it is the most unexpected it also goes as the lowest-seeded. The #13 assignment does match that of last year's SEC tourney winner, Georgia, but the '09 MSU Bulldogs had higher qualifications. And the NCAA's #8 seeding of regular season champions LSU, and the #9 status handed tourney runner-up Tennessee, show how little the committee thought of this conference.
But then one SEC team, Florida, owns a win over Washington this year already. And State isn't so far removed from thumping the Gators in the last week of the regular season. "I don't know a lot about them," Stansbury said. "I know they have one of the best big guys in the league and one of the better in the country. They have a freshman point guard from New Jersey that's been the real deal, a small guy that can really score. But hey, we've got a pretty good point guard, too, we're pretty good at the center spot too. It's obvious Washington is a good team. I know they've been a team that gets up and down the floor and scores a lot of points. We'll get some tapes in here by noon." And do what work they can in the short time available. Stansbury and select players will also meet with media in the afternoon. How tired they look Monday is anyone's guess, but as far as the Bulldogs are concerned it's just another hurdle to clear here in a March that is going their way already. "It's been a great run," Bost said.
Besides, Varnado notes, the Bulldogs have beaten long odds already. "Nobody believed we could win but us. We came out ready to play and we did the job. We were up to the challenge, and we succeeded."