By Gene Phelps
Mississippi State coach Richard Williams is anxious to see what kind of reception his basketball team will receive this week from Kentucky fans when it plays in the NCAA Southeast Regional in Lexington, Ky.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs (24-7) play top-seeded Connecticut (32-2) in the regional semifinals at 6:40 p.m. CST Friday at Rupp Arena.
“They may not let us in town (laugh),” said Williams, whose team upset the then-No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats, 84-73, March 10 in the SEC Tournament championship game in New Orleans. “I think they will support us. The Kentucky fans are knowledgeable and classy fans. I think they appreciate good basketball, and we’ve played good basketball down the stretch.
“We are an SEC team, so we are representing their area of the country.”
However, the regional’s home favorite will likely be No. 2 seed Cincinnati, which will play No. 3 seed Georgia Tech in the regional’s other semifinal at approximately 9:30 p.m. Friday. Cincinnati is located 70 miles north of Lexington.
The semifinal winners will play at 4 p.m. CST Sunday, with the winner advancing to Final Four next week in East Rutherford, N.J.
Mississippi State earned its second consecutive berth in the “Sweet 16” last week with first- and second-round victories over Virginia Commonwealth (58-51) and Princeton (63-41).
UConn, the Big East regular-season and postseason tournament champion, defeated Colgate (68-59) in its opener and beat Eastern Michigan (95-81) in the second round.
“I don’t know much about UConn. My assistant coaches are watching tape on them now,” Williams said during a Monday afternoon news conference.
But Williams has seen enough of UConn to know what kind of game to expect. The Huskies like to press on defense and push the ball up the court on offense, similar to Mississippi State’s SEC foes Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky.
“I know (UConn coach) Jim Calhoun said that our game would be a case of their speed against our power,” Williams said. “That indicates to me that they must be fast and quick. I know they press and like to get the ball out in transition. They really score quickly.”
The Huskies are led by All-America guard and Player of the Year candidate Ray Allen. He is averaging a team-high 23.4 points per game. Allen is joined in the backcourt by point guard Doron Sheffer, who is the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 16.2 points. He is also averaging 6.1 assists.
They’ll tangle with the Bulldogs’ backcourt of point guard Marcus Bullard and shooting guard Darryl Wilson.
“They’ve got a great backcourt,” Bullard said. “I think we’ve got a great backcourt, too. I think one of the main keys will be stopping Sheffer’s penetration.”
Wilson is likely to draw the assignment of guarding the talented 6-foot-5 Allen, who averaged 24.5 points in the two tournament games.
“One of the things we’ve got to do is contain Ray Allen,” Bullard said. “Darryl will start out guarding him, but it will take an overall team effort on the defensive end.”
Bulldog Notebook: Williams gave his team a two-day break, not practicing Sunday or Monday. “We still have some injuries to heal,” he said. “I thought rest was much more important than anything we could do on the floor.” …
MSU has a one-game winning streak at Rupp Arena having beaten Kentucky 76-71 there last season.