Following his team’s 55-52 defeat of Mississippi State on Monday, Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald insisted his vanquished opponent would contend for the SEC crown and do “great things” this season, including a deep NCAA tournament run.
You sure about that, coach?
Because I’m not.
Like a lot of people, I was high on MSU coming into the season. And for good reason: All five starters were back from a team that caught fire late last season and won the SEC Tournament; senior Jarvis Varnado has continued to develop his offensive repertoire and put on weight; and the Bulldogs were surely going to get Renardo Sidney on the court at some point.
Now, with SEC play looming – it starts Saturday at No. 14-ranked Ole Miss – MSU looks nothing like the team I expected it to be. Win the SEC? State will be lucky to win the Western Division, which Ole Miss must be favored to win now.
This raises an unpleasant question: Was last season fool’s gold?
Was it largely a matter of things simply falling the right way for MSU in what was a relatively weak league? Have we thought too highly of the Bulldogs?
The foreshadowing came early, in that season-opening home loss to Rider. Then came a setback against Richmond. Then the Bulldogs allegedly found some fire from sparkplug Phil Turner and got on a roll, winning nine in a row.
Only, they didn’t really beat anyone. The nine teams MSU defeated during its streak had a combined record of 55-68 through Wednesday. The average RPI of those teams, according to RealTimeRPI.com: 178.9. Yikes.
Only two of those teams, Old Dominion and Wright State, are over .500, and only Old Dominion has a double-digit RPI (42).
Overall, MSU is 12-3. Those losses to Rider (currently 9-7, 144 RPI), Richmond (11-4, 24) and WKU (8-4, 52) were against good teams – good mid-major teams. Given its recent history, Western Kentucky might make a little noise come March, but not much. The other two might not even get there.
So what we have here is a Mississippi State résumé that needs more burnishing than even George O’Leary could provide. There will be no shortcuts, though, because there’s only one path through the SEC, and it’s fraught with all sorts of perils. Forget for a moment about Ole Miss and Tennessee and Kentucky. What about Georgia, which stunned Georgia Tech on Tuesday?
Yeah, no guarantees anywhere on that schedule.
While Varnado has definitely improved offensively – he’s averaging 14.3 points and leads the SEC with a 64.7 field goal percentage – nothing else seems to have gone as planned for MSU. The momentum of last season seems to have faded, and it doesn’t look like the NCAA is going to let Sidney on the court this season.
But if MSU hopes to salvage a strong postseason résumé, it must live up to those previously stated expectations and not only win the West, but the overall title and the league tourney. Doubtful the latter two will happen, because Kentucky is legit, but winning 12 SEC games and a division title would certainly gloss over these early season stumbles.
Is that possible? Sure. This team has enough talent and experience to do great things. And maybe it will.
And perhaps Ken McDonald will be proved right after all.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal