When Per Nilsson was in his player’s shoes at Mississippi State, they didn’t need an announcement that they’d qualified for the NCAA Tournament – it was just assumed.
Now as the Bulldogs head coach, he’s hoping Tuesday’s selection in the field of 64 is the start of a journey back to where the MSU program used to be. This is Mississippi State’s first NCAA appearance since 15-straight bids from 1991-2005.
“It just means we’re heading back to where we used to be – this used to be a no-brainer that we’d be in the tournament,” Nilsson said. “I wanted them to have a good chance to do something this year because I know we’ll be good next year as well.”
Mississippi State (13-8, 8-3) was selected with an at-large berth and will be traveling to Atlanta to play Florida State (9-14) in the first round of play that will start at 9 a.m. on May 13. The host in the four-team pod is Georgia Tech (19-5) and the Yellow Jackets will be playing Sun Belt Conference champions Middle Tennessee State.
“It doesn’t really matter who we play, we just have to get through two rounds somehow,” Nilsson said. “They try to make the draw so we play a team ranked 10-16 (in the final Top 25 poll) and we know we can beat those teams.”
The NCAA Tournament format in men’s tennis involves 16 regional draws and the winners of those pods will advance to Stanford, Calif., for the rest of the four rounds that will be played until the 2011 national champion is crowned.
“The Sweet 16 in tennis is all at one site (in 2011 it’s at Stanford),” Nilsson said. “For most of the good teams, these first two rounds are just about taking care of business until you get to what we call the real NCAA Tournament. The NCAA doesn’t like me to say that but we’re trying to get to Stanford and see what it’s like.”
Mississippi State holds wins this season over five teams in this year’s NCAA field (Vanderbilt, Nebraska, Tennessee, Auburn and Ole Miss) and their first round opponent Florida State has faced eight opponents ranked in the Top 50.
After losing 4-2 to a Florida team that went on to win four matches in four days in its own tennis complex to win the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week, Mississippi State looks to regroup especially in doubles in order to make a postseason run.
“We knew they would ready and I think they’ve lost like four home matches in nine years maybe so we knew it would be tough,” Nilsson said. “They came out strong and we came out flat in doubles and played the worst we had in that all season.”
The preparation included intense indoor work Tuesday at McCarthy Gymnasium after the players were given last week off in order to sufficiently prepare for final exams.
“I watched the next day (of the SEC Tournament) and Florida smoked some quality teams as well so I think they just played extremely well and we had a bad day,” Nilsson said.
State is 15-15 overall all-time in the NCAA Tournament and 11-4 in first-round play.
When combining the All-Southeastern Conference and All-Freshman men's tennis teams, Mississippi State’s five honorees tied Georgia for the most representation on the 2011 all-league squads.
Nilsson was also named the conference's coach of the year after MSU posted their best record overall (13-8) and in the SEC (8-3) since 1998’s NCAA semifinal team went 21-5 and 9-2 in the league.
Mississippi State's talented newcomer Malte Stropp was tabbed SEC freshman of the year after being one of top rookies in nation in 2011.
A four-time SEC freshman of the week, he is 24-5 in singles, 16-2 in dual matches, and was a stellar 9-1 in SEC play this season, playing mainly at the No. 4 position. He has been ranked as high as 89th in the country in singles and 33rd in doubles with Louis Cant. The rookie has MSU’s best winning percentage in dual matches (.889) and has won his last 11 contests in a row. Stropp also clinched a team-best four matches for State this season, including MSU’s big home wins over No. 4 Tennessee and rival Ole Miss.
State was the only team in the conference to have two members of the SEC All-Freshman team, with Stropp and Zach White earning the honor.
White, from Niagara Falls, Canada, is 11-7 at the No. 6 spot for State this season, including an impressive 8-3 in the SEC in his first season in the league. He clinched two matches for MSU this spring (SEC road wins at South Carolina and Auburn) and is finishing the season strong, having won eight of his last 11 contests for the Bulldogs.
“It’s a big deal in the SEC and I was looking through the rookie of year winners in the SEC and they’re really good players,” Nilsson said. “It’s exciting for (Stropp) and for us because we know he’ll be here awhile. I feel like we have three guys that came in at that level (but) only one guy can win it.”