Mississippi State Basketball: Bulldogs face a must-win in SEC Tournament

Jan 7, 2023; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Chris Jans (right) talks with guard Shakeel Moore (3) during the first half at Humphrey Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 7, 2023; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Chris Jans (right) talks with guard Shakeel Moore (3) during the first half at Humphrey Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports /

Mississippi State basketball closed out the regular season with a 77-72 loss at Vanderbilt. Though the Bulldogs have picked up several impressive wins over the past six weeks, their loss to the Commodores has their NCAA Tournament hopes on the line.

Year one of the Chris Jans era for Mississippi State basketball has been a massive success. In a season that began with low expectations and featured a tumultuous month of January, the Bulldogs have won 20 games, taking down the likes of Marquette, TCU, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas A&M. That success has given them a great chance at reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019 and just the second time since 2009.

But a bid to the Big Dance is far from locked up. State falling to Vanderbilt in their final regular season game put them on thin ice as they enter the SEC Tournament. Though a loss to the Commodores certainly isn’t a black eye on the resume, as they themselves have played their way into the tournament conversation, it kept State from picking up the last win they needed to shore up their resume and feel safe about earning a bid.

As a result, MSU’s resume is now going to be under more scrutiny, and they no longer have the edge over most bubble teams like they previously did. Whereas the Bulldogs entered the weekend viewed as highly as a 10-seed in some respected brackets, the current consensus has State amongst the “Last Four In”, meaning they would participate in the First Four play-in games. And while I don’t believe any Bulldog fans would be complaining about the trip to Dayton, being projected to the play-in at this point means you can easily drop out of the field with the wrong results.

To make it simple, if Mississippi State wants to be certain it hears its name called on Selection Sunday, they have to win their SEC Tournament opener against Florida. A loss at this point would be crushing for multiple reasons.

First, it opens the door for potential bid-stealers to take your spot. Two of the more obvious bid-stealing opportunities have been avoided thus far with both Charleston and Oral Roberts winning their conference tournaments. But Conference USA still presents that danger, as league champion FAU is already a lock to receive a bid to the Dance. That alone makes things scary for bubble teams should the Owls lose, but it becomes an even more precarious situation when you factor in that both North Texas and UAB are more than capable of winning the C-USA Tournament on their own. And we cannot forget the potential for bid-stealers from multi-bid leagues as well. Any of the Power 6 conferences, the AAC, and/or the Mountain West could cause problems should lesser teams get hot.

Second, you could be easily replaced by any other bubble team if they have more impressive showings in their conference tournaments. How much the selection committee chooses to factor conference tournament results can vary drastically, but generally speaking, if you’re right at the cutline going into your conference tournament, how you perform is going to play a role in where you’re seeded and whether or not you even make the field.

The likes of Providence, NC State, Pittsburgh, Utah State, Nevada, Rutgers, Penn State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Michigan, North Carolina, and Clemson all have something to prove. Yes, that’s a whole lot of teams fighting for just a handful of spots. And you can bet more than one will make a positive statement this week. MSU better make one, too.

And finally, the optics of losing to Florida at this point in the season would simply be ugly. Though the NET continues to like the Gators much more than it should (a good thing for MSU), they’re simply not a good team. Florida is 16-15 on the year and has been largely unimpressive over the last month, particularly once their star big man Colin Castleton went down with a season-ending injury.

It would be a tough loss to take as a team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life regardless. But when you consider that MSU already lost to this Florida team earlier in this season, it becomes even more crucial that they find a way to win. You cannot be 0-2 against the Gators with neither game being played in Gainesville and reasonably expect a tournament bid. I won’t say there’s no chance at State getting one with a loss, but those odds seem diminutive.

So again, the Bulldogs have to handle business on Thursday to make it to March Madness. But will that alone be enough? That comes down to how highly the selection committee views State at this point. As I mentioned earlier, most bracketologists currently have MSU as one of the last teams in the field. But there are still some, including some whose opinions you should value, with them in “Last Four Byes” territory, which means avoiding the play-in games.

If the committee is higher on MSU than most bracket projections, beating Florida should lock them into the field. But if they see the Bulldogs as being closer to the cutline at this point, just winning Thursday may not guarantee selection if enough bid-stealers or surging bubble teams present themselves. The only way for State to feel completely safe is to not only take down Florida but then also pull off a massive upset of likely NCAA Tournament 1-seed Alabama in the next round on Friday.

MSU has already faced Bama twice this season, and though they performed well in both games, they went 0-2 against the Tide. That said, Alabama has not been playing particularly well as of late, and Mississippi State’s defense gives them a chance in every game. Beating Alabama isn’t out of the question, and that would be the type of win that would lock the Bulldogs into March Madness.

It would still be a tall task, though, and more than likely, if State does advance to Friday, that’ll be the end of their time in Nashville. So what’s the most realistic path for comfortably making the tournament? Go out and handle Florida and then play a respectable game against Bama. If Mississippi State does that, I’d put the odds of them reaching the NCAA Tournament at around 90% if not higher (I don’t want to go too high there and then find out the committee just hated State for whatever reason).

But if you’re 0-1? You’re sweating profusely on Selection Sunday and likely need to come to grips with being NIT bound. And hey, I’m pretty sure all of us would’ve taken an NIT appearance going into the season. But now that you’re here, that would definitely be a sour finish. We can all taste the Big Dance. That’s where the Bulldogs need to be.

And luckily, Mississippi State controls its own destiny. They know what’s at stake, and I’m confident they’ll come out fully locked in to get the job done. This team has displayed resiliency on multiple occasions throughout the season. I expect they’ll show that fight at least one more time.