By Gene Phelps
Mississippi State’s journey back to the NCAA Tournament begins today when it hosts Georgia in a 7 p.m. SEC game at Humphrey Coliseum.
With a 12-5 overall record and only nine regular-season games remaining, the Bulldogs know they must turn things around or they’ll be home in March watching the field of 64 play on TV. Before it’s 60-59 win Saturday over Tennessee, Mississippi State had lost four of its last five games.
“The guys realize now is the time that we’ve got to put it together if we want to go back to the tournament,” said senior power forward Russell Walters. “This is definitely a big game for us.”
Walters says the Bulldogs, who were ranked as high as No. 8 by the Associated Press this season, are starting to improve as a team. The Bulldogs lost two key starters point guard T.J. Honore and small forward Marcus Grant off last season’s Sweet 16 team.
“I think more people are starting to realize that we miss T.J. and Marcus,” Walters said. “They got a lot of people open with their penetration. T.J. was such a great point guard and Marcus was a great defensive player.
“We’ve got some new players and they’re having to adjust. I see the effort starting to pick up in practice. I see it coming together.”
Mississippi State opened the season with a bang, going 10-1 and winning the Far West Classic with a title game win over Nebraska. Included in that run was a six-game road winning streak.
“It’s been an up and down year,” Walters said. “Kentucky beating us (74-56 Jan. 9) let us down. You can’t let losses like that get you down.”
Georgia (11-6, 2-5 SEC East) had a similar 10-1 start, but has lost five of its last six games and dropped out of the rankings. State is 4-4 in the SEC West.
“They are a great rebounding team,” Walters said. “We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us. Carlos Strong (6-8 Georgia forward) is the best power forward in the league. It’s going to be tough.”