Mississippi State continued to force its way into the NCAA Tournament conversation with a 62-52 win over Vanderbilt Saturday. State did it with a renewed defensive effort, holding two of Vanderbilt's best players, A.J. Ogilvy and John Jenkins, to a collective nine points.
It wasn't just that State won, or that it won its second game in a row, even though both were important. It was all about which team it beat. A win over Vanderbilt, with its RPI in the top 25, is State's highest-profile win of the season, and it came at the right time.
State entered the SEC tournament with a surprisingly weak resume for a major-conference team with tournament aspirations; its previous best win was over Old Dominion.
State will need to beat Kentucky in the SEC tournament final, of course, to cement a bid. But it has done enough in Nashville to ensure that it has a reason to watch the selection show Sunday night.
MISSISSIPPI STATE 62, VANDERBILT 52: State led by as many as 15 in the second half, then held on to weather Vanderbilt's rallies and got the win. Though Barry Stewart led the team with 14 points and Phil Turner had some rally-sparking points in the first half, State's star was its defense.
NOTES, QUOTESG/F Phil Turner had two big first half 3-pointers that helped State get its early lead. Turner went scoreless the night before and heard the razzing from his teammates in the locker room as a result.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was full of praise afterward for Barry Stewart's defense, which follows State coach Rick Stansbury's praise. He thinks he has one of the best perimeter defenders in the Southeastern Conference.
C John Riek, the 7-foot-1 freshman from the Sudan, played again Saturday. He played against Florida Friday, too, but hadn't seen action for State in over a month before that.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury loves a variation of the following refrain: If he had been told that his team would win a share of a SEC Western Division title after some key offseason injuries and the ineligibility of star recruit Renardo Sidney, he would have taken it. His fans might not agree. The Bulldogs started the season ranked No. 18 in the nation and returned all five starters from a team that won the SEC tournament last season. But thanks in large part to those injuries, depth continues to plague this team, which was not a good omen heading into a situation where the only sure thing for its NCAA Tournament hopes was to win three games in three days and win the SEC tournament championship.
State is painfully thin at two important positions for a postseason run: point guard and center. Dee Bost and Jarvis Varnado, respectively, have done well when they play. But for State to rely on them for those type minutes in quick postseason turnarounds is another concept altogether.
This time last season, Kodi Augustus emerged as a contributor from off the bench. For State to make a similar type run in 2010, it's going to need someone like Riley Benock, Romero Osby or Phil Turner to be difference makers once more.
Mississippi State has won five straight SEC tournament games. The Bulldogs also won five straight from 2002-2003.
State clinched the top seed from the Western Division in the SEC Tournament but couldn't capitalize on an opportunity to win the West outright. Instead, it shared it with an Ole Miss team that surged late. The SEC doesn't break ties for divisional titles.
State played the final game at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum in Auburn on March 3. It wasn't anything new for the Bulldogs. In 2002, they closed out South Carolina's Carolina Coliseum and in 1976, they closed out Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum.
POSTSEASON OUTLOOK: State's last two wins have taken this team from a surefire NIT pick to a team that is the epitome of a bubble team. The Bulldogs are either among the last teams in or first teams out, depending on the bracketologist of choice. State, though, cannot afford to have the bubble shrink, and its fans have been well-suited to pay attention to other leagues in recent days just as much as its own team.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: State surged after some early losses and started Southeastern Conference play on a high with three wins that started with a victory at arch-rival Ole Miss. But the Bulldogs started to be exposed for their reliance on the 3-point shot, and once that happened, they lost four in a five-game stretch. State won five of six in the span that followed and clinched the top seed out of the West in the SEC tournament, but its NCAA Tournament hopes were dampened by two straight losses to close the regular season.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual starters -- F Kodi Augustus, C Jarvis Varnado, G Ravern Johnson, G Dee Bost, G Barry Stewart. Key subs -- F Romero Osby, G Riley Benock, G Phil Turner.
GAME REVIEW:Mississippi State 76, South Carolina 63
Auburn 89, Mississippi State 80
Tennessee 75, Mississippi State 59
Mississippi State 75, Florida 69 (SEC tournament quarterfinals)
Mississippi State 62, Vanderbilt 52 (SEC tournament semifinals)
vs. Kentucky, Sunday, March 14 (SEC tournament finals)
POSTSEASON OUTLOOK: The Bulldogs are on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and this appearance in the SEC title game should be a big boost. Coach Rick Stansbury isn't discussing the possibilities with his team. He acknowledged the players are always on their "walking computers" to find out what the so-called experts are saying. "We don't talk about it," Stansbury said. "You guys do enough talking about it without us having to say it. Our guys understand where we're at. Our guys understand what we have to do."
ROSTER REPORT:C Jarvis Varnado, the NCAA's all-time leader in blocked shots, was a force inside, with four blocked shots, all in the first half, against Florida.
PG Dee Bost hurt his hip in the first half of the Tennessee loss but returned to the game. Afterward, he said the hip was numb from an injection he received to deaden the pain.
State recently received the NCAA's penalties in the amateurism inquiry of freshman PF Renardo Sidney. The NCAA says he must sit for a year and 30 percent of next season. Sidney says he'll return. State will appeal.