What does Mississippi State basketball need to do to make the NCAA Tournament?
Last year as Mississippi State began to create some real momentum towards reaching the postseason, I did this exercise, breaking down the benchmarks I felt were necessary for the Bulldogs to earn a bid. I'll link that article here, as I did a bit of a deep-dive into the history of selection amongst the bubble in the NET era. So, if you'd like further context, that'll be the place to read up on things. But I'm going to reiterate the main points here with updated data following the 2023 tournament.
1. Be in the NET Top-40
In the NET era, only seven teams have failed to reach the NCAA Tournament while ranking in the top-40 of the NET. Last year those teams were North Texas (38th) and Rutgers (40th). North Texas lacked quality wins, failed to do anything of significance in the non-conference (a killer for mid-majors), and had a pair of poor losses. Rutgers' omission from the field was the biggest surprise of Selection Sunday given their several great wins, but their horrific non-conference SOS and four Q3 losses kept them out.
2. Get 4+ Q1 wins
I feel a bit iffy about including this point because it's certainly not cut and dry. There have been plenty of teams to pick up several quality wins and not reach the field. Just last season, three of the first four teams out of the field had at least four Q1 wins (Oklahoma State had 6!). That being said, the majority of teams with four plus Q1 wins do make the field so long as there aren't other obvious factors killing their resume. The biggest thing is that if you have at least four Q1 victories, it's unlikely that a lack of quality wins is what keeps you out (although there's another distinction that must be made with regards to that point that'll I discuss shortly).
3. Avoid terrible losses
Just like you must rack up impressive wins, it's pivotal that you avoid taking bad losses in the Q3 and Q4 range. One and occasionally two such losses can be overcome so long as you've been impressive beyond them. But if you're borderline, those games tend to hold a lot of weight. Last season, Rutgers' four Q3 losses and Clemson losing twice in both Q3 and Q4 were, along with terrible non-conference schedules, the reason neither team reached the tournament.
4. Quality road wins are a must
This was a point I didn't devote a section too last year, but I mentioned in passing that at least one team (2022 Oklahoma) likely missed the field due to a lack of quality road wins. Taking a closer look at things, and it turns out that one of the commonalities you see amongst the first few teams out of the field is that they rarely have impressive wins away from home. Simply winning Q1 games and winning road games often isn't enough. You need a few results that check off both boxes. I'll note that neutral site wins can help here as well, but a Q1 road win trumps all else.
If I were to add another point, it would be that you need to win games of significance in the non-conference. But as Mississippi State has already finished up that part of their schedule, we can't include it as a benchmark to be met. A lack of good wins out of conference was another regular issue for teams that ended up on the wrong side of the bubble. As for how State performed in that category this season, they were solid. The best teams they faced, they beat. But it'd certainly be helpful if Wazzu and Northwestern could start winning more games.
How about the four benchmarks listed above? MSU's 34th NET rank has them in a good spot. They have faced no Q1 opponents, at least not currently. The 4-1 Q2 record is a decent start at adding quality wins, but they'll need to do some damage in SEC play in that category. As for avoiding terrible losses, the Bulldogs have fallen short. The home loss to Southern will be a Q4 the rest of the way. This leaves practically no margin for error against lesser competition going forward.
Finally, State has played only one true road game this season at Georgia Tech, which they lost. It's possible the "neutral site" win over Rutgers could be adjusted to count as a road victory (it should), but the Scarlet Knights are unlikely to count as a Q1 opponent for MSU under any distinction. They just have not had the opportunities yet to add major road wins. That will obviously change with the SEC slate.