By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Massachusetts is excited about playing in the NIT. Whether Mississippi State feels the same way remains to be seen.
The two teams will meet at 6 tonight in the first round of the NIT at Humphrey Coliseum. The game will be on ESPN2.
It’s the first postseason appearance in four years for UMass (22-11), a program that is trying to return to the former glory it found under John Calipari.
Leading that effort is fourth-year head coach Derek Kellogg, a point guard at UMass for Calipari from 1991-95 who coached under him for eight years at Memphis. Kellogg has told local media that his team is “excited” about being in the NIT.
Calipari, now the coach of No. 1 Kentucky, understands the reason for joy in Amherst, Mass.
“He took over a program that basically was gutted when he took it over, and he had to bring it back step by step, and that is hard,” Calipari said. “What you have is a team that’s on the rise, a team that plays good defense, exciting play, and Derek’s a terrific, terrific coach.”
MSU, meanwhile, was projected for most of the season as a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament. Calipari said he thought the Bulldogs were good enough to reach the Sweet 16.
But a late-season collapse – which included two losses to lowly Georgia – kept them out. So State finds itself as a No. 4 seed in the NIT; UMass is a No. 5.
“Most of the time you’re trying to play your way in. But this particular year, we played our way out, the way we played down the stretch,” head coach Rick Stansbury said. “That’s what’s disappointing about it, that’s what makes it a little more difficult.”
Players expressed their disappointment on Twitter, and the question now is whether the Bulldogs can summon up enough energy and enthusiasm for this game and tournament.
“You’ve got to be mature enough to put the disappointments behind you, and it’s another opportunity to play and to compete,” said Stansbury. “Guys who compete and do that will play, and will play their best. Guys that won’t, they won’t do their best.”
The Minutemen are a young team led by sophomore point guard Chaz Williams, who’s scoring 16.4 points per game and leads the Atlantic 10 with 6.4 assists.
UMass beat No. 21 Temple in the A-10 tournament, then lost to eventual tourney champ St. Bonaventure in the semifinals. The Minutemen run a high-octane offense, averaging a league-best 76.1 points per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field.
The winner of tonight’s game faces the winner of No. 1 seed Seton Hall versus No. 8 Stony Brook.