MSU hosts Tennessee in big SEC men's game

MSU's Tyson Carter, left, guards Tennessee's Jordan Bowden
Staff Writer

It’s undoubtedly the biggest men’s basketball game at Humphrey Coliseum in years.

Tuesday night, when Mississippi State (21-8, 9-7) hosts No. 16 Tennessee (21-7, 11-5), Southeastern Conference Tournament seeding and NCAA Tournament hopes will all be on the line.

For the first time in a long time, the Bulldogs have realistic aspirations of being in the big dance next month. It’d be the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2009 if MSU can get it. The magnitude of the moment isn’t lost on any of the Bulldogs either.

“I feel like we deserve to have this opportunity because of how hard we’ve worked and the progression we’ve shown over the last two or three years,” Mississippi State junior forward Aric Holman said.

The Bulldogs are far from a sure thing to get into the NCAA Tournament. As of late Monday, had MSU’s RPI as 62nd in the country. That number would take a significant leap forward with a win over Tennessee, whose RPI sits at 12th according to the website.

The question remains. With a win over the Volunteers, do the Bulldogs feel like they should be in the tourney? It depends on who with MSU is asked.

“I’m not going to go there,” State head coach Ben Howland said. “It’s just one game at the time that we’re focused on. Obviously that’s Tennessee and trying to play really well against a really good team that’s obviously highly ranked and deservedly so with a very high RPI.”

Holman is a bit more outspoken with his beliefs, stating he “absolutely” believes the Bulldogs should be in with a win.

“I feel like we’re the hottest team in the league right now,” Holman said. “We’ve won seven of our last nine and we’re building more and more confidence and motivation and enthusiasm each game now. We’re becoming one. That’s a great feeling at this point in the year.”

The truth of the matter is that no one knows for sure exactly where MSU currently stands. What is known is that State’s best chance to get back into the tournament for the first time in nearly a full decade would come with a win tonight. There would still be work to do even beyond that, with a road trip to LSU this weekend and the SEC Tournament still remaining, but a victory tonight would obviously be a humongous boost towards helping Mississippi State achieve its goal.

It won’t be easy though. Tennessee needs some help to get there, but the Vols are still playing to win the SEC’s regular season championship. They currently sit in second place only one game off the pace of Auburn.
Tennessee has been carried this year by its defense. The Volunteers boast the top scoring defense in the SEC, limiting opponents to just 66.9 points per game.

Howland says Tennessee’s defense isn’t the only scary part of the Vols’ game though. He believes Tennessee is a complete team.

“(Forwards) Grant Williams and (Admiral) Schofield, those guys are just studs and really good players,” Howland said. “They run a lot of stuff through them. They take the most shots, but they also have really good guard play.

"(Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes) is one of the best coaches in the game, not just in our league. When you win nearly 700-something games and have been to the tournament 22 times and been to Final Fours – things that coach Barnes has done – it’s pretty incredible. He has won everywhere he has been.”

While Tennessee is unquestionably talented in multiple ways, the Bulldogs aren’t so bad themselves. State is particularly good on the home floor it’ll look to defend Tuesday night. MSU has a school-best 18 wins on its own court this season. The Bulldogs’ only home loss came against Auburn.

If Mississippi State can again hold serve at home, their tournament dreams will become that much closer to a reality. State is treasuring even having that chance.

“It’s a great feeling to be right here,” Holman said.