Big 3 schools all eyeing NCAA tourney

By John L. Pitts | NEMS Daily Journal

Could this be the first season that all three of the state’s Big Three men’s basketball teams make the NCAA Tournament?
It’s still a bit of a longshot, but at least one basketball analyst – Jerry Palm of CBSsports.com – sees all three teams making the field of 68.
There’s still a month left in the regular season, not to mention conference tournaments, but all three teams have a path to the tournament if they can keep winning.
That would end long NCAA droughts in Oxford and Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss (20-3, 7-1 Conference USA) hasn’t been to the big dance since winning back-to-back conference tournament championships in 1990-91. Those are the only NCAA tourney trips for the Golden Eagles, and both ended with first-round losses.
After beating Memphis 75-72 on Wednesday to end an 18-game losing streak in the series, Southern Miss takes a five-game winning streak to UAB on Wednesday. The Eagles are alone atop the C-USA standings and are No. 9 at realtimeRPI.com.
Challenges ahead
Ole Miss (14-7, 4-3 SEC) made its last NCAA trip in 2002, four seasons before Andy Kennedy took over as head coach. Five of the Rebels’ remaining nine games are on the road, including today’s visit to Alabama, a Feb. 9 trip to Starkville and a Feb. 18 visit to No. 1 Kentucky.
It’s a challenging path to finishing 8-8 in league play, which is probably the minimum to get a good look from the NCAA selection committee.
The current bracket projection at ESPN.com has the Rebels barely missing the field, so at least one more unexpected victory – even better, one on the road – may be the ticket. The Rebels are No. 42 at realtimeRPI.com while the Bulldogs come in at No. 35.
No. 22 Mississippi State (17-5, 4-3 SEC) appears much better positioned for a return to the NCAAs after missing out for two seasons in a row.
Today’s game against Auburn opens a three-game homestand for the Bulldogs, and their game against Kentucky this season is Feb. 21 in Starkville. MSU is 12-1 at home this season, with 11 homecourt wins in a row.
A fourth state team could also make the men’s field. The SWAC tournament champion gets an automatic bid and Mississippi Valley – which leads that league with a 9-0 record – will be the team to beat.
On the women’s side, with the state’s three major teams a combined 6-22 in conference games, it appears unlikely that any will earn an NCAA tournament trip this season.
john.pitts@journalinc.com