JOHN L. PITTS: State’s Big 3 stumbling to hoops finish line

By John L. Pitts | NEMS Daily Journal

As it turns out, Jan. 21 may have been the high-water mark for the state’s college basketball teams this season.

On that day, Mississippi State beat host Vanderbilt 78-77 in overtime, while Ole Miss followed its midweek win over MSU with a 66-63 victory at Georgia.

In fact, all six of the state’s Division I teams won on that golden Saturday – the first time that had happened since Feb. 24, 1996.

But much of the basketball news since then has been bad:

– Mississippi State is 3-4 since that win in
Nashville and takes a deeply troubling three-game losing streak into Tuesday night’s home game against No. 1 Kentucky.

– Ole Miss is just 2-5 since its victory in Athens, playing its way out of the NCAA Tournament conversation in the process.

– And while Southern Miss hasn’t stumbled that badly, the Golden Eagles have lost two of their four games – at UAB and Houston – since a huge 75-72 homecourt win over Memphis on Feb. 1.

It was just two weeks ago when we were asking whether as many as four Mississippi men’s teams – don’t forget Mississippi Valley, 14-0 in the SWAC – might make the NCAA field.

That landscape has shifted since then.

The folks who focus on predicting the NCAA tourney’s field of 68 have assumed for weeks that Mississippi State is in. But the Bulldogs’ recent stumble puts that in doubt.

A stunning upset of Kentucky would surely punch their ticket, but failing that they must end that skid.

The Bulldogs (19-8) close with games at Alabama and South Carolina, followed by the home finale at Arkansas. A sweep would be best, but this team hasn’t strung together three wins in a row since December.

Before the double whammy of last week’s losses to Vandy and Kentucky, there was still some unwise talk of Ole Miss (15-11) as a team that could play its way into the NCAAs. Nope.

Southern Miss (22-5) should make its first NCAA tourney since 1991, all the way back to the Clarence Weatherspoon and M.K. Turk era.

But the Golden Eagles suddenly seem vulnerable
in road games and it’s the wrong time of year for that. They need to finish strong, so they can survive a loss in the Conference USA tournament (in Memphis) and still go dancing with an at-large bid.

Mississippi Valley is clearly the class of the lightly regarded SWAC.

Yet, the Delta Devils must win their league tourney to get into the NCAAs – and their reward will likely be a play-in game to earn a date with Kentucky.

Yet, that’s much, much better than staying home.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc) is sports editor of the Daily Journal. His last NCAA tourney trip was in 1982.