By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Somehow, some way, Mississippi State must put Black Sunday behind it.
With the bitter taste of disappointment still fresh on their tongues, the Bulldogs will try to quickly acquire a taste for the National Invitation Tournament. One of four No. 1 seeds, they play host to No. 8 seed Jackson State at 9 p.m. today on ESPNU.
MSU’s players and coaches believe they should be prepping for an NCAA tournament game instead. But after failing to earn an automatic bid due to Sunday’s gut-wrenching 75-74 overtime loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament final, the Bulldogs were not granted an at-large bid to the Big Dance.
Monday morning, MSU coach Rick Stansbury was still steaming about the snub.
“It’s not always fair, that’s life,” he said. “But no one can ever convince me and tell me we’re not one of the best 64 teams in the country. Based on numbers, based on committees, and based on politics sometimes, that’ll always happen.”
MSU’s players were not made available to the media Monday, as they usually are, but point guard Dee Bost said on his Twitter page Sunday night that his team’s exclusion from the NCAA tourney was “krazy.”
The Bulldogs (23-11) did not practice Monday, using what little time off they have to heal up and rest. More than the physical toll the weekend took on them, the players’ mental state is what should be of greatest concern. Can they muster up enough energy and motivation to embrace a consolation prize?
“That’s a major challenge for us,” Stansbury said. “But like I said, I’ve got good kids. My kids will find ways. I expect nothing but that from them, to come out and find a way to fight through this first game here.”
MSU won’t be the only team in Humphrey Coliseum dealing with dashed NCAA dreams. Jackson State (19-12) won the SWAC regular season title with a 17-1 mark but was ousted from the first round of the league tourney by lowly Grambling.
That early exit happened six days ago, so the Tigers have had time to put it behind them and focus on the NIT.
“Been two years since we’ve been in postseason play, so to be in postseason play, we’re happy to be there,” said seventh-year head coach Tevester Anderson. “As a matter of fact, we look forward to it.”
The Tigers should be happy to be here. They lost their best player, Grant Maxey, early in the season to an ankle injury. They started out 0-10 thanks to a brutal non-conference schedule.
But Maxey, the preseason SWAC Player of the Year, was spelled nicely by the team’s other senior, Garrison Johnson. The 6-foot-5 guard averages 17.6 points per game and earned the SWAC’s Player of the Year honor.
Much like MSU, Jackson State prides itself on defense and rebounding. The Tigers yield an average of 64.8 points per game (third in the SWAC) and have a plus-2.5 rebounding margin (second in the SWAC).
“In order for us to get an upset against those guys, we have to do everything pretty much perfectly,” Anderson said. “If that happens, then you have a chance.”
If MSU is unable to forget about Sunday for a couple of hours, will that give the Tigers a better crack at pulling an upset? Anderson isn’t going to count on that.
“They may have had some disappointments here and there during the regular season, but State has an outstanding, talented team, and they’re a great tournament team,” he said. “They’re going to come out and play well.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.