By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
NASHVILLE – As tough as this season has been for Mississippi State, the Bulldogs aren’t ready to let it go.
MSU (9-21) will try to extend its season starting today in the SEC Tournament, when it takes on South Carolina (14-17) at 6:30 p.m. at Bridgestone Arena.
Freshman center Gavin Ware is counting on sticking around a few days and packed his suitcase accordingly.
“I don’t plan on coming home any time soon,” he said. “I plan to make this opportunity last, play all the games we can play to become champions.”
That’s a tall order for the No. 13-seeded Bulldogs, although they are entering this tournament with a good bit of confidence. They’ve won two out of the last three games, that one loss coming last Wednesday at South Carolina, 79-72.
MSU beat the the 12th-seeded Gamecocks 56-54 in Starkville on Jan. 9. So this is a matchup the players feel good about, but they feel good regardless just by being in the tourney.
“I had kind of a little jitters, because I’ve never been able to play this caliber of basketball in the SEC Tournament,” said Colin Borchert, a junior college transfer. “I’m kind of ready to see how the outcome is. Coach said it’s going to get physical because it is the end. Everyone’s trying to do their best.”
This is a new deal for all of the eight healthy Bulldogs, because not one of them has any SEC Tournament experience. Tyson Cunningham, Roquez Johnson and Baxter Price were on last year’s team but did not play in the tournament, and the two players with tournament experience – Wendell Lewis and Jalen Steele – are out with injuries.
First-year coach Rick Ray wants his team to draw on its experience at the Maui Invitational in November, when MSU played three games in as many days.
“Now, this is a little different because you know you’re playing for something,” Ray said.
Like MSU, South Carolina has had a rough go of it. First-year coach Frank Martin has dealt with personnel issues as he strives to get the program back on its feet.
So he recognizes how tough a job Ray has had this season.
“They play with tremendous resolve, tremendous energy, and they’re doing it with a bunch of young kids, which is the most impressive part,” Martin said.
The odds are against MSU sticking around Nashville for more than a couple of days – the winner gets No. 5 seed Tennessee on Thursday – and Ray knows that. Besides, he’s not worried about anything but today.
“I just think everybody talks about the SEC Tournament being wide open,” Ray said. “I don’t really know what that means, but I don’t know if it’s wide open for everybody.
“I’m looking for the opportunity for our guys to go out and see what we can do against South Carolina. We’ll take care of that first.”