By Gene Phelps
INDIANAPOLIS Mississippi State comes into today’s NCAA Southeast Regional as the team that beat Kentucky. Coach Richard Williams wants to make sure they don’t leave as the team that lost to Virginia Commonwealth.
“The Kentucky game was a different game, a special time for Mississippi State and the people who follow the program,” Williams said, referring to the Bulldogs’ 84-73 Sunday upset of top-ranked Kentucky to win the SEC Tournament. “We addressed that with our players Monday, again Tuesday, and today (Wednesday).
“If we have a letdown then VCU will win the game. Of course, they may beat us even if we don’t have a letdown.”
The tipoff between No. 19-ranked Mississippi State (22-7), the tournament’s fifth seed, and VCU (24-8), the 12th seed, is scheduled for 6:40 p.m. CST today at the RCA Dome. A crowd of 35,000 plus is expected the for the opening round game. The winner plays UCLA or Princeton Saturday in the second round.
The Bulldogs’ impressive three-game run through he SEC Tournament has led some experts to tab them a Final Four “sleeper” in this year’s tournament field. Especially when you consider that State made it to the Sweet 16 last season.
Williams wasn’t buying that “sleeper” label at his Wednesday news conference.
“This is only the third or fourth time in the history of this university to be in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “When you start talking Final Four that is maybe stretching it a little bit. I think you have to have a lot of luck, get some breaks and things like that.”
VCU, which won the Colonial Athletic Conference championship and tournament, is led by 6-foot-7 forward Bernard Hopkins, who is averaging 16.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
The game should feature a clash of styles: MSU’s new uptempo game and VCU’s halfcourt game.
“I think we’re good in transition,” MSU guard Darryl Wilson said. “Marcus (Bullard) did a good job in the SEC Tournament pushing it up the floor. It’s something we were working on in practice before the tournament and it carried over.”
Williams looks for VCU to play a box-and-one or a triangle-and-two on defense in an effort to stop Wilson.
In the injury department, Williams said all his players are cleared to go, including SEC Tournament MVP Dontae’ Jones. Jones re-injured his foot in the finals, but he worked out Wednesday and hit a few dunks for the fans.