Mississippi State Basketball: How can the Bulldogs reach the NCAA Tournament?

Jan 31, 2023; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs forward D.J. Jeffries (0) reacts after making a three point basket against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second half at Colonial Life Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 31, 2023; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs forward D.J. Jeffries (0) reacts after making a three point basket against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second half at Colonial Life Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /

With two weeks left in the regular season, Mississippi State Basketball finds itself squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. How must the Bulldogs close things out to assure themselves a spot in the bracket?

Mississippi State basketball grinded out an ugly win in Oxford on Saturday to complete a season sweep of Ole Miss, their first sweep of the Rebels since 2011. The Bulldogs struggled mightily on offense, turning the ball over 19 times and shooting under 26% in the second half. As a result, they needed overtime to take down a lowly Ole Miss team that has won just 10 games this season.

Despite a not-so-inspiring performance, State did the one thing that actually mattered: they won. Following a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky, MSU badly needed a win to get back on track. While the loss to the Wildcats didn’t necessarily hurt MSU, it certainly eliminated some margin for error in the closing stretch. And taking a loss to an Ole Miss team that ranks #129 in the NET would’ve been a massive blow both to State’s tournament resume and their confidence going forward.

Luckily, the Bulldogs survived, and they remain in a position to play their way into their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2019. In fact, if the season ended today, State would almost certainly be in the field. Most bracketologists currently have MSU amongst their “Last Four In”, meaning they project the Bulldogs as one of the last teams to receive an at-large bid to the tournament and, therefore, would participate in the First Four play-in games in Dayton.

Obviously, if you’re viewed as one of the last teams in, you’re anything but a lock to reach the tournament with 4 regular season games and conference tournaments left to play. There’s still plenty of work to do, both in terms of strengthening your resume with quality wins and protecting it by avoiding bad losses. Just like we did earlier this month, let’s break down what Mississippi State must do in its final games to reach the NCAA Tournament.

Current Resume

First, we need to evaluate where MSU’s resume currently stands. State is 18-9 on the season and 6-8 in SEC play. As of Sunday, the Bulldogs are #42 in the NET. As discussed in our last “path to the tournament” blog, a top-40 NET ranking tends to bode well for at-large selection. A few more quality wins could certainly move MSU into the top 40. However, more important than your own NET rank is how you perform against the 4 NET quadrants. You want to rack up wins vs Quads 1 and 2 and avoid losses to Quads 3 and 4. Here’s State’s resume broken down by quadrant:

Quad 1: 3-5

Quad 2: 4-4

Quad 3: 2-0

Quad 4: 9-0

State owns Quad 1 victories over Marquette, TCU, and Arkansas. Those 3 wins in particular are as good as any wins you’ll find from other bubble teams. Utah, Missouri, Akron, and Ole Miss make up State’s Quad 2 wins. There’s potential for the Utah win to become Q1 if the Utes, #59 in the NET, can move into the NET top 50. Akron and Ole Miss are each near the lower extremes of the Q2 range, so it’s very possible one or both end up counting as Q3 games depending on how they close out their seasons.

State has still not suffered a Q3 or Q4 loss. That’s a huge positive for them, and that also sets them apart from other bubble teams. However, it is still very possible their loss to Georgia ends up being a Q3 loss. UGA is #131 in the NET. For road games, teams must rank within the top-135 of the NET to count as Q2 opponents. Georgia is dangerously close to falling below that threshold. Even if Georgia becomes a Q3 loss for MSU, it won’t suddenly tank their resume. One such loss can be overcome with enough quality wins.

Everything I’ve laid out so far presents the profile of a likely-tournament team, especially once you factor in a 47th-ranked strength of schedule, a 4-4 road record (including a Q1 road win), and 4 wins against teams projected to reach the tournament. MSU’s only real holdup is a non-conference strength of schedule that ranks 227th. While State played multiple quality opponents in their non-conference slate, 8 of their non-conference games were against Q4 teams, dragging down their strength of record.

That truly isn’t that big of a concern for State because of the great wins they possess. In fact, I’d argue the biggest reason you see MSU so close to the cut-line is that they’re still in the process of climbing their way out of a deep hole that was dug when they lost 8 of 9 games earlier in the season. Nonetheless, the Bulldogs are not yet safely in the field, and they need to close the regular season strong to make that happen.

How Must MSU Close?

The consensus take on how MSU reaches the tournament has been very straightforward: get to 9-9 in conference play (while avoiding bad losses), and they’re in. I pushed back on that some in my last breakdown because, at the time, I wasn’t fully convinced that State’s resume would be strong enough for an at-large bid just by reaching 9 SEC wins. When I wrote that piece, there was a probable path for a 9-9 SEC finish where MSU still wouldn’t have enough big wins for tournament selection.

But things change. State’s win at Arkansas gave them a key resume boost I felt was crucial: a Quad 1 road win. And at the same time that MSU’s case for an at-large berth strengthened, bubble teams across the country began faltering, making the path for MSU that much clearer. On top of all this is the fact that the Bulldogs’ remaining schedule now presents more opportunities to pick up good wins.

Both the road trip to Missouri and Texas A&M at home are Q1 games. Winning either would give State a 4th Q1 win, which as mentioned in the last breakdown, is a key benchmark for getting a bid.

I should note that with the game being played in Starkville, Texas A&M just barely meets the threshold for being a Q1 opponent and could easily end up counting toward MSU’s Q2 record. Regardless, it’s another opportunity for a good win against a projected tournament team.

While the status of State’s home meeting with South Carolina has not changed at all (they absolutely have to win that game), Vanderbilt has suddenly become a formidable opponent. The Commodores have won 5-straight SEC games, including taking down Tennessee and Auburn, and the Commodores are all the way up to #89 in the NET. It’s well within the realm of possibility that when the Bulldogs travel up to Nashville for the final regular season game, they have another Q1 chance awaiting them. But even if the ‘Dores remain a Q2 opponent, that is no longer a game where a loss on its own hurts you. And considering Memorial Gymnasium’s reputation as a house of horrors for Bulldog basketball, that’s a good thing.

The point to all this is that if Mississippi State finishes 9-9 in SEC play, they will have done so by picking up enough quality wins that they would absolutely reach the NCAA Tournament. So that’s the key for MSU. Get to 9-9. That would entail a 3-1 finish to the season. South Carolina must be one of those wins, so between Missouri, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt, State needs to beat two. That won’t be an easy task as Columbia is a very difficult place to play, and A&M and Vandy are amongst the hottest teams in the nation right now. It will take MSU playing significantly better than they did in Oxford on Saturday.

Could 8-10 in SEC play be enough? If you read my last breakdown or follow my Twitter, you know that I frequently reiterate that conference record isn’t actually a criteria used by the selection committee to evaluate teams. A losing conference record doesn’t disqualify you from selection. All the committee actually cares about is your entire body of work.

I cannot rule out that Mississippi State could put together a strong enough resume for a bid at 8-10. But it would be very, very close. Historical precedent hasn’t been great for SEC teams with losing conference records. 2018 Alabama is the only recent example of an 8-10 SEC team to receive a bid, and it took them winning at the buzzer in the SEC Tournament to make it.

I would argue that there have been quite a few SEC teams in recent years who would’ve still made the tournament with losing conference records, but those teams also had stronger resumes than this State team does. 

It doesn’t help that this isn’t a great year for the SEC in terms of strength. While the league will see a good number of bids to the tournament, Alabama and Tennessee are the only teams projected higher than an 8-seed. There’s a lot of mediocrity in the SEC this year, and while conference record isn’t officially a criterion, would a team who fails to hit .500 in this SEC really be worthy of a bid? It’s tough to say.

At 8-10, you almost certainly have work to do in the SEC Tournament, and how much the committee chooses to value conference tournament games can vary drastically. You also will have put yourself in real danger of falling victim to surging bubble teams or potential bid-stealers (teams who win their conference tournaments that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a bid to the NCAA Tournament). If State wants to feel good about getting a bid to the Big Dance, they need to hit 9 SEC wins.

Ultimately, Mississippi State controls its own destiny. Finish the regular season 3-1 while avoiding a disastrous loss to the Gamecocks, and you’re in the tournament. That’s certainly not easy, but they’re capable. If they get back to playing the brand of basketball that lead them to an upset win in Fayetteville and close out the regular season strong, then we’ll see our Bulldogs in March Madness.