STARKVILLE — Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, loves Mississippi State’s chances of winning the national championship.
In a telephone poll conducted Monday by the Philadelphia Daily News, 213 of 747 voters tabbed the Bulldogs to win it all in this weekend’s Final Four at the Meadowlands Arena. The Bulldogs’ semifinal opponent — Syracuse — and UMass were tied for second in the voting with 187 votes apiece. Kentucky was last with 160 votes.
“They must not have been some informed voters (laugh),” State coach Richard Williams said Tuesday during a packed news conference at Humphrey Coliseum.
Mississippi State (26-7) heads to New Jersey the favorite to beat the Orangemen (28-8) in Saturday’s 4:42 p.m. CST game.
But the Bulldogs, who earned the the school’s first Final Four berth by whacking Southeast Regional No. 1 seed UConn, 60-55, and No. 2 seed Cincinnati, 73-63, Friday and Sunday in Lexington, Ky., weren’t thinking about odds prior to Tuesday’s practice, their first since Sunday’s monumental win.
West Regional champion Syracuse, not UMass or Kentucky, was at the top of their list.
“We understand the difficultly of the assignment,” Williams said. “Syracuse is an excellent team.”
However, finding the time to prepare for the Orangemen is going to be difficult considering all the media and outside attention focused on the Bulldogs.
“We’re leaving Thursday for New Jersey and hope to get in a few practices there, I think,” Williams said. “We’ve got to get around to all the press conferences and banquets. Maybe we can get in a practice.”
Williams said his biggest problem since coming home has been trying to convince people that he’s only a basketball coach and not a travel agent.
“I do not have any hotel rooms or tickets,” he said, then smiled.
As for the players, the experience of being Final Four bound is just starting to set in.
“It’s like a dream,” freshman guard Bart Hyche said. “When I signed here my dream was just to make the NCAA Tournament.”
Sophomore forward Whit Hughes, State’s sixth man, is still pinching himself.
“The past couple of days I’ve just stopped and said to myself, `I can’t believe I’m going to the Final Four. We don’t usually get all this attention in Starkville. It’s a great time to be a Bulldog.”
Williams wants his players to enjoy what they’ve just accomplished, but he has cautioned them about staying focused amid all the hoopla.
“We’ve talked to the team about enjoying it and to enjoy what they’ve done,” he said. “But we need to try as best we can to not be distracted by all the things that go along with it.
“The focus still have to be on playing basketball. I think this team will handle that OK. I hope they do. You just have no way of knowing until the game gets there.”
One player enjoying all the extra attention is Southeast Regional MVP Dontae’ Jones.
“Dontae’s reveling in it,” Williams said, the laughed. “For the first time since he’s been here, he’s enjoying getting up and going to class.”
Despite the fact that his team’s favored over Syracuse, Jones believes the Bulldogs still lack respect from the national media and college basketball fans. He knows all the attention this week will be focused on the battle between No. 1 UMas and No. 2 Kentucky.
“I know they’re looking at our game as the JV game,” he said. “We haven’t gotten any respect all year long. We haven’t gotten any respect throughout this tournament. The only thing that will probably get that monkey off our back is to win it all.
“Hopefully, we can accomplish that goal. If we do, sooner or later the respect will come. Even if we don’t win, I think people will realize that this program is up and coming.”