What Must Mississippi State Basketball do to Reach the NCAA Tournament?

We're halfway through the SEC schedule, and Mississippi State basketball has had an up and down year. What must the Bulldogs do the rest of the way to reach the NCAA Tournament?
Feb 3, 2024; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Mississippi State guard Shakeel Moore (3) drives along the
Feb 3, 2024; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Mississippi State guard Shakeel Moore (3) drives along the / Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023-2024 season has been a bit of a roller coaster for Mississippi State basketball. The Bulldogs sit at 14-8 here in the first week of February, and to say they've gone through numerous ups-and-downs to reach that mark would be an understatement.

On the positive end, they own multiple impressive victories. In the non-conference, they began building out a solid resume by taking down the likes of Washington State and Northwestern, two teams firmly in the mix to reach the NCAA Tournament. In SEC play, they own two of the most impressive wins the Mississippi State program has seen in years. Both Tennessee and Auburn were top-10 ranked teams at the time State beat them, and both, more importantly, remain within the top-10 of the all-important NET ratings. Few teams fighting for an at-large berth own a pair of wins as strong.

But then there are the negatives. MSU failed to glide through the non-conference slate unscathed. In late November, the Bulldogs fell on the road to a losing Georgia Tech team that sits at 124th in the NET. Though it's only a Quad 2 loss, it's very close to falling below that threshold, and regardless of quadrant, any loss to a sub-100 NET team will drag down your metrics.

Still, that loss pales in comparison to the home loss State suffered just a few days later to Southern University. A dreaded Quad 4 loss, that result will hang over the Bulldogs' resume like a black cloud for the remainder of the season.

And in league play, Mississippi State has gotten off to a rough start. State is 3-6 at the halfway mark of their SEC schedule. To be fair to them, eight of their first nine matchups were Quad 1 games, with none of those eight teams being lower than 61 in the NET, four being in the top-10, and five being on the road. That's an absolutely brutal stretch that most teams would struggle through. And seeing as how conference record isn't a factor considered by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, that record isn't that big a deal.

The problem with the poor start to conference play is the number of opportunities MSU has missed at adding road wins to the resume. Crucial mistakes cost them against South Carolina, Florida, and Ole Miss, and their performances against Kentucky, and, especially, Alabama were embarrassing. This team has been mostly bad on the road, and that's a problem when it comes to trying to earn a tournament bid.

As bracketologist Rocco Miller pointed out following their loss in Oxford, Mississippi State is the only team under at-large consideration who has yet to win a true road game, a stat that holds true following this weekend's trip to Tuscaloosa. Their wins on neutral courts over Wazzu and Northwestern help them, but if you want to reach the Big Dance, you need to find true road wins. And chances at getting those are running thin.

Now this may come as a surprise given the mostly dire picture I've just painted, but Mississippi State basketball is still in good position overall to reach the NCAA Tournament for a second-straight year. State's metrics, high quality wins, and overall strength of schedule have them in a spot where if they can simply handle business the rest of the way (and not be dreadful on the road), they'll hear their names called on Selection Sunday and likely not have to sweat it.

So what does that entail?

Mississippi State Basketball Resume Snapshot

Here's a look at the Bulldogs' resume as it currently stands:

14-8 (3-6)

NET: 44

Quad 1: 3-6

Quad 2: 2-1

Quad 3: 4-0

Quad 4: 5-1

Road: 0-6

Predictive Average: 39

Resume Average: 46

Strength of Schedule: 17

Non-Conference Strength of Schedule: 237

Positives: Mississippi State owns three Q1 wins, two of which are against top-10 NET teams. Their 5-7 record against Q1/2 is solid, and the predictive metrics (KenPom and BPI) rate the Bulldogs as a top-40 team nationally. Their NET and resume metric (KPI and Strength of Record) aren't quite as high, but they're still in the range for realistic at-large consideration. A 17th ranked strength of schedule further solidifies their resume.

Negatives: MSU's most glaring flaw is the Quad 4 loss to Southern. That's a damaging enough result to knock State by at least one seed line if not more. Their lack of road wins could become a major issue as well, though they are helped some by being 6-0 of neutral courts. Finally, while the Bulldogs' overall strength of schedule is strong, their non-conference slate was less than respectable with 9/11 games coming against Q3/4. This is unlikely to be a killer for State, but if they're still firmly on the bubble in March, it could become a bigger deal.

What Must be Done for Mississippi State Basketball to Reach the Tournament?

At the start of SEC play, I went into the details of what the Bulldogs would need to do to reach March Madness for the second-straight year. The main points were this:

  1. Be in the top-40 of the NET
  2. Get 4+ Quad 1 wins
  3. Avoid terrible losses
  4. Add quality road wins

None of those points are exact requirements. You can survive with one or even two of those factors not being in your favor. But if you meet each of those thresholds, you're almost certainly going to earn an at-large bid.

Unfortunately for Mississippi State, it's literally impossible for them to check all of those boxes because they've already failed to avoid a terrible loss by losing to Southern. And as we've discussed, that's going to hurt them all the way through Selection Sunday. Still, every year there are teams with a Q4 loss that earn at-large bids. You must simply do enough elsewhere to make up for it.

As for the other categories, State is currently outside the top-40 of the NET at 44th. This isn't a big deal. They could move up four spots simply by other results around the country. And if they handle their business the rest of the way, they'll almost certainly move up considerably. They own three Q1 wins, have three such games left to play, and have a few opponents that could move up into that range. In both NET rating and Q1 wins, State is in a good enough spot right now to feel alright.

Adding quality road wins is a problem, however. MSU is winless on the road to this point. There's no good reason their win over Rutgers in New Jersey is being counted as a neutral site, and it could technically be counted as a road win by the selection committee if they chose to. But for now it's not, and regardless, the Scarlet Knights aren't good enough for that result to carry much weight.

State has four road games left on the schedule: Missouri, LSU, Auburn, and Texas A&M. Mizzou has been terrible this year and will be a Q3 opponent for State. LSU has been solid and should be a firm Q2 game, but at 93 in the NET (for now), it won't move the needle much either. Both Auburn and A&M are Q1.

The Auburn and Texas A&M games, both in March, are the last chances Mississippi State has to earn a statement road win. If MSU wants to feel like a lock to reach the Big Dance, I think they'll need a win in one of those. I certainly believe an at-large bid is possible without either, but in order to leave no doubt, they really need to win one.

Now how many road wins in general do they need regardless of quadrant? The number looks to be two. In the last four NCAA tournaments, all in the NET era, the fewest number of road wins for an at-large selection has been two each season. Six teams got in with two road wins. Four of those teams had at least one Q1 road win. The two who didn't were Clemson in 2021 and Maryland last season.

Both of Maryland's road wins came against bad competition, Minnesota and Louisville. But the NET thought highly of the Terrapins, rating them 31st. Clemson's 2021 road wins over Miami and Wake Forest were also unimpressive, and the Tigers were only 41st in the NET. That creates some optimism for a team like 2024 Mississippi State, but we must remember this was a COVID impacted season. Judging resumes with minimal non-conference games and plenty of cancelled matchups was difficult. It's hard to take much from that year.

Still, two road wins seems to be the bare minimum, and given that Mississippi State did an excellent job in neutral site games (those do count for something), two would probably be enough, especially if one of those can be against either Auburn or Texas A&M.

Beyond that, State simply has to start winning games and building up some momentum. These next five present them with a great shot. Over the next three weeks, MSU will play Georgia, at Missouri, Arkansas, Ole Miss, at LSU. The average NET rating of these games is 101.2. The Bulldogs must take advantage.

And more than just taking advantage, it is paramount that they handle business and don't slip up. Their next three games are all in Quad 3. I hate calling games must-wins, especially with over a month left, but these are as close to must-wins as you can possibly be. Losing any, especially to Mizzou or Arkansas, could tank the Bulldogs' resume. And really for that entire 5-game stretch, I don't think State can afford more than one loss.

MSU faced the toughest SEC slate any team has had in the first half of league play. Now's when it lightens up, and if they don't capitalize, it's going to be incredibly difficult to reach the Big Dance.

Things toughen back up for the last two weeks of the regular season with Kentucky, at Auburn, at Texas A&M, and South Carolina. None of those games will be easy, but to feel safe come Selection Sunday, State needs to take two (assuming they handled business in the proceeding five games).

If Mississippi State basketball can do all of that, I'd just about be willing to say they locked up a bid to the NCAA Tournament. If they can't, there'll be work to do in the SEC Tournament, and even then, they may be sweating at the end.

Chris Jans was able to overcome a horrendous start to SEC play to get the Bulldogs to the tournament in his first season. And though the roller coaster nature of this season has been frustrating to watch, MSU isn't in nearly as bad a shape at this point this time around. If they can go on a similar run as last year's team, they'll be Dancing.