By Gene Phelps
We’ve all heard the old coaching adage that defense wins games.
Well, guess what, it does. DEFENSE is the reason Mississippi State is playing in the Final Four this weekend at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, N.J.
Mississippi State assistant coach Owen Miller says head coach Richard Williams has sold this team, which has won a school-record 26 games, on playing hard-nosed defense. Through seven postseason games, including the SEC Tournament, the Bulldogs have held their opponents to 34 percent shooting from the field.
“He (Williams) has them believing defense will win us games,” said Miller, who played guard in the same Gulfport High School backcourt with Denver Nuggets star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. “They (the players) bought it, and it has.”
After last week’s upset of third-ranked Connecticut in the semifinals of the Southeast Regional in Lexington, Ky., MSU forward Dontae’ Jones told Williams that he was tired of reading that the Bulldogs’ opponents were having “bad games” shooting.
“They pick our game to not shoot well,” Jones told his coach. “Does anybody see a pattern to that?”
Only Georgia, which shot 40 percent from the field in its 86-68 loss to MSU in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, has shot 40 percent or better against the Bulldogs in the postseason. Here are the other shooting percentages during the postseason: SEC Auburn (35.0), Kentucky (33.3); NCAA Virginia Commonwealth (31.3), Princeton (34.8), Connecticut (32.4) and Cincinnati (33.8). The average for the four NCAA games has been 32.9.
Actually, Mississippi State’s been tough on shooters all season. The Bulldogs led the SEC in opponents’ field goal percentage, holding its league rivals to 38.8 percent.
“This team’s playing excellent defense,” Williams said.
Cincinnati guard Darnell Burton knows how tough MSU’s defense can be. He was 6-of-20 from the field and scored 17 points in the Bearcats’ 73-63 loss in Sunday’s regional finals.
“Every time we shot the ball they had a hand in our face,” he said.
Mississippi State’s aggressive man-to-man style keeps opponents off-balance.
“When you’ve got guys hanging on you like we do for 40 minutes, it tends to get somewhat mental,” Miller said. “(Keeping opponents under 40 percent) is a tribute to how we play defense.”
Williams said he hasn’t done anything special in practice to emphasize defense during the postseason.
“We prepare them defensively by doing the same drills that we’ve used all season,” he said.
But Miller says Williams is a master at getting his players to respond in defensive drills.
“Coach Williams does a tremendous job getting them to play defense in practice,” Miller said. “He breaks down defensive work every day. They go 3-on-3 and 4-on-4. If somebody’s not in the right position, they’re exposed.”
All-SEC guard Darryl Wilson believes all the practice is paying off.
“We work hard in practice on defending and rebounding,” he said. “I believe the way you practice is the way you play in a game.”
Another factor in playing good defense is having good players, Miller said. And the Bulldogs have one defender everybody can see 6-foot-11 All-SEC center Erick Dampier.
“When you’ve got a center like Erick Dampier in there, you can take a chance on the perimeter,” Miller said. “He allows you to make mistakes. He is such a presence. Shooting is so mental. When he’s in there, players have a tendency to think instead of just play.”
Freshman point guard Bart Hyche said this team became defensive believers during a stretch in January when they lost four of five games.
“We finally understood that we’re not going to win games with offense,” he said.
Added sophomore forward Whit Hughes, “We have a lot of pride in our defense. We feel like we can make it hard on anybody to score. We’ve got to let our defense carry us through the postseason.”
And maybe to a national championship.