What Must Mississippi State do to Reach the NCAA Tournament?

Jan 28, 2023; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs guard/forward Cameron Matthews (4) reacts after a block during the second half against the TCU Horned Frogs at Humphrey Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 28, 2023; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs guard/forward Cameron Matthews (4) reacts after a block during the second half against the TCU Horned Frogs at Humphrey Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports /

Mississippi State basketball has now won 3-straight games following the toughest stretch of their schedule.

Those three wins have put the Mississippi State basketball team right back on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and with nothing but winnable games remaining, MSU looks poised to make a run to the Big Dance. What must they do to make that happen?

Saturday night was a lot of fun for Bulldog fans. Mississippi State won 63-52 against a red-hot Missouri team in front of a raucous Humphrey Coliseum crowd. MSU controlled the game from start to finish, looking every bit the part of an NCAA Tournament team. It was some continued momentum for the Bulldogs who, after having lost 8 out of 9 games during a treacherous stretch of competition, have now won 3-straight.

Last Saturday’s upset of 11th-ranked TCU sparked a run for MSU, and they now find themselves right back in the tournament conversation. As Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports put it, State is close to being “in position to being in position”.

Translation of that “Rothstein-ism”: While MSU would not be in the tournament if it were held today, they are starting the build the type of resume that could get them in if they keep winning. The latest bracketology updates have the Bulldogs somewhere in the “Next Four Out” or “Under Consideration” territory, meaning there are still several teams ahead of them in the pecking order. This is well illustrated on Bracket Matrix, which takes the projections of 93 different bracketologists and averages them into one “consensus” bracket.

Luckily for Mississippi State, the tournament isn’t being held today. With a month of regular season games and conference tournaments still to go, there are still plenty of opportunities remaining for MSU to show they belong in the Big Dance. And frankly, to even be worthy of consideration at this point after what they went through in January should be viewed as a small success.

So as we go into the stretch run of the season, let’s examine what the Bulldogs need to do to not only be under consideration but actually hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

Current Resume

First, we need to look at where MSU’s resume currently stands. The Bulldogs, who sit at 15-8 (3-7) on the season, are up to #46 in the NET rankings. Here’s their record broken down into the NET quadrants:

Quad 1: 2-5

Quad 2: 3-3

Quad 3: 2-0

Quad 4: 8-0

MSU owns a pair of Q1 victories over Marquette and TCU. Their win over Utah has counted as a Q1 win for much of the season, but as the Utes have fallen to #56 in the NET, it currently counts as a Q2 win. If Utah can move back into the top 50, that would give State a third Q1 victory.

Along with Utah, State’s other Q2 victories are against Missouri and Akron. In total, MSU has 4 quality wins against non-conference opponents. While their overall non-conference strength of schedule is lacking, ranking #220, this is undoubtedly the best non-conference resume MSU has put together since their last tournament appearance in 2019.

Playing in the SEC affords one with plenty of opportunities to bolster their resume, and as a result, MSU’s overall strength of schedule ranks #39. Despite the slow start to SEC play, you’ll see that State has not suffered a Q3 or Q4 loss on the season. Simply put, none of their losses are considered “bad” by the NET ranks. MSU’s low-NET loss came to #126 Georgia, and as that was a road game, it still falls into the Q2 category. It should be noted though that if Georgia were to fall outside the top-135, that would then become a Q3 or “bad” loss. That’s something to keep an eye on.

What Benchmarks Get Them In?

The question everyone has is what must MSU do in order to reach the tournament. The common refrain from Bulldogs fans has been that if they can get to 20 wins overall and be 9-9 in SEC play, they should get in. That’s not a bad assertion to make considering most of the SEC teams to reach those benchmarks in the last few seasons have reached the tournament.

But it certainly isn’t a sure thing. Just last season, Texas A&M found themselves on the wrong side of the tournament bubble despite having 23 wins (to go along with a 9-9 SEC record) on Selection Sunday following a run to the SEC Tournament Championship Game. In fact, Mississippi State was in that spot just a few seasons ago. The 2017-2018 Bulldogs were 22-11 (9-9) but still ended up in the NIT. And in both cases, the quality of the SEC was more than strong enough to suggest that teams with those records should’ve made the tournament if it was actually that simple.

The truth is, while a team’s overall record matters, it isn’t that big of a factor. So long as you enter Selection Sunday with a winning record, preferably by more than 1 game, you’ve got a shot at making the tournament if your resume is strong enough. Last season Michigan made it as a 17-14 team. Even more specifically, conference record is practically irrelevant to selection. Teams with losing conference records make the tournament all the time (while teams with winning conference records are regularly left out). Iowa State went 7-11 in Big 12 play last season and not only made the tournament but also avoided the First Four play-in games.

Ultimately, it’s not about how many games you won. It’s who you’ve beaten (and lost to). A strong resume overrules a mediocre record, and a lacking one overrules a good record. Now with all that being said, if MSU is going to put together a resume strong enough for a tournament bid, they’re almost certainly going to have 20 wins with at least 9 in SEC play. I know, that was a lot of prefacing just to come back and say the simplified view is likely accurate. But I still felt it important to clarify some of the technicalities of qualifying for at-large selection, especially because even if Mississippi State does finish with that record, they aren’t guaranteed a spot.

So what benchmarks must they reach? Well, that’s difficult to say with any certainty. What matters to the committee year by year can vary. And even in a single season, it’s not at all uncommon to see inconsistency in which teams are selected. Nonetheless, we can still attempt to lay out the clearest path to the tournament for MSU. There have been 3 NCAA Tournaments since the NET was implemented for the 2018-2019 season. I took to time to chart the selection trends for those tournaments, and here are the main takeaways:

Top-40 of the NET is the place to be

In the NET era, just 5 teams have had a top-40 NET ranking and have not been selected for the tournament. Those are 2019 NC State, 2019 Clemson, 2019 Texas, 2022 Oklahoma, and 2022 Xavier. For the 2019 teams, it’s very cut-and-dry as to why each was left out. NC State had a horrendous strength of schedule and had a pair of bad losses. Clemson had just 1 Q1 win. Texas had a 16-16 record. For Oklahoma and Xavier, it’s less clear why they weren’t selected as their general resumes weren’t dissimilar from teams who did get in. But diving in a little deeper, Oklahoma’s lack of quality road wins and Xavier’s awful losses to DePaul and Butler were likely deciding factors.

A top-40 NET rank isn’t out of reach for MSU. Sitting at #46 with multiple opportunities at quality wins remaining means they could jump into the top 40 if they keep winning.

Avoid the bad losses

This is pretty straightforward but still important to note. Though plenty of teams have received at-large bids despite multiple Q3/4 losses, avoiding those losses can punch you a ticket to the Dance so long as you have no other serious flaw to the resume. There have been 10 teams since 2019 that missed the tournament while not having a Q3/4 loss. Only 4 of those 10 had any true argument for selection. But each of those 4 were sub-50 NET teams, meaning there were still clear flaws to their resumes.

To this point, MSU has avoided any Q3/4 losses, though as noted earlier, the loss to Georgia could eventually become one of the Athens-based Bulldogs continue losing. If it does end up as a Q3 loss, State can likely overcome it. But it is an absolute necessity that they do not lose any of their remaining games against bad competition. That would be a resume killer.

4 Quad 1 wins might be the magic number

The flipside to avoiding bad losses is that you also must also pick up enough impressive victories to be deemed worthy of the tournament. When looking through recent tournaments, 4 Q1 wins look to be the sweet spot for feeling confident about selection. That’s not to say it assures you a spot or that winning 3 such games can’t get you in. But of the teams that got to 4 Q1 victories, the vast majority reached the tournament. Those who didn’t pretty much all had some fatal flaw that killed their resume.

Q1 wins might be the most important factor for choosing between bubble teams, as plenty of teams outside the top 40 (or even top 50) of the NET have received at-large bids because they had enough signature wins to override everything else. Last season Rutgers was #77 in the NET but still made the tournament because of an incredible 6 Q1 wins. MSU currently owns 2 Q1 wins. As discussed, the win over Utah could potentially become one, and the Bulldogs will have 2 or 3 more Q1 opportunities in the regular season.

Through the last 3 tournaments, here are the teams that finished with at least 4 Q1 wins, no more than 1 Q3/4 loss, and an overall record of at least 1 game over .500 that did not get selected for the NCAA Tournament: 2022 Oklahoma and 2022 BYU.

We already discussed what might have kept the Sooners out. As for the Cougars, they ranked #54 in the NET and had a horrendous Q4 loss that ended their tournament hopes.

How Does MSU Get There?

8 regular season games remain for the Bulldogs, and I should be honest here. I’m not sure if anything short of winning out in the regular season would assure MSU a spot in the tournament. I’m not trying to be a downer, but the predicament facing State is that losing any of their remaining games means either missing out on another crucial resume-boosting win or suffering a resume-killing loss.

Now that is not at all to say that they have to win out to get in. Their odds are probably still solid of getting a bid even with a loss or two the rest of the way. There are paths that exist where even with 3 more losses, assuming they came to the right teams, MSU could find a way into the Dance. But the likelihood of that scenario is very, very small.

The biggest thing hurting State right now is the lack of Q1 wins. I wouldn’t count on Utah getting back into the Q1 range. MSU has 2 known Q1 opportunities remaining in their road trips to Arkansas and Missouri. There is potential for Kentucky to become a Q1 opponent if the Cats enter the top 30 of the NET (currently #32). Going back to the point about needing 4 Q1 wins to feel really good about selection, State likely needs to win 2 of those games, and naturally, those are the games they are least likely to win.

The other problem for MSU is their lack of road wins. They have just 2 so far this season: Minnesota and South Carolina, neither of which are all that impressive. State has 4 upcoming road games, including 2 you feel good about their chances for winning in Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. If MSU can get to 4 total road wins, they’d be in a decent spot quantity-wise. The issue though is the more minor detail of not having a quality road win. I mentioned last year’s Oklahoma team earlier and how I suspect their lack of quality road wins kept them out of the tournament. If you’re splitting hairs between bubble teams, those factors can play a greater role.

I believe State badly needs to find a way to win at least one between at Arkansas and at Missouri. Assuming the Bulldogs aren’t going to win out the regular season and they have to take a loss or two somewhere, it may very well be in their best interest to take that loss to either Kentucky or Texas A&M at home while getting the wins on the road. The benefit of a big road win outweighs losing at home to a good team.

I want to point out that while this may not be realistic, it would be in State’s best interest not to put their tournament fates in the hands of SEC Tournament results. While conference tournaments do play some role in shaping resumes, how much the committee chooses to value those results can vary drastically. Take last season for example. Indiana almost certainly got in the NCAA Tournament because they won twice in the Big Ten Tournament, including a major upset over Illinois. But here in the SEC, Texas A&M’s run to the SEC Tournament Championship Game, which included massive upsets of Auburn and Arkansas, didn’t seem to matter at all as the Aggies were left out. The feeling seems to be that if you need more than one final win to solidify your standing, it’s unlikely that a run in the conference tournament changes how the committee views you (Hello, 2010 Mississippi State).

So to lay it all out, Mississippi State needs to capitalize on their 4 final resume-building opportunities: at Arkansas, Kentucky, at Missouri, and Texas A&M. Preferably, you want to get wins in the road games. You probably don’t have to be perfect in those 4 (“probably” is doing a lot of work here), but anything less than splitting in those games, and it seems incredibly unlikely that you have a resume strong enough for a bid. The other 4 games – LSU, at Ole Miss, South Carolina, and at Vanderbilt –  are 100% must-win games. You simply cannot afford to lose to any of them as they would tank your resume. Though Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are technically Q2 games, their sub-100 NET rankings would cause a significant drop to MSU’s own NET if you lose. And in the meantime, you hope and cheer for all the bubble teams in front of State to collapse over this final month.

Yeah, none of that is easy. But it was ultimately never going to be easy for this team. The fact Chris Jans has this roster in a spot where they still have a somewhat realistic shot at reaching the tournament with a month to go is incredibly impressive. I get the sense that in the coming years, we’ll do much less discussing of what State must do to reach the tournament and more discussing what seed they’ll be and how many games they’ll win once they’re there.