March Madness? State, Ole Miss make NCAA field in same season for only second time

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Mississippi State head basketball coach Ben Howland shouts instructions to his team.

Mississippi will join in March Madness in a big way this week. As expected, both Mississippi State and Ole Miss made the NCAA Tournament field announced late Sunday afternoon.

State will play in the tournament for the first time since 2009, Ole Miss for the first time since 2015. This will mark only the second time ever and the first time since 2002 both Ole Miss and State have made the NCAA Tournament field in the same season.

State will play Liberty University in the first round of the East Regional Friday at San Jose, Calif. Ole Miss plays Oklahoma in the first round of the South Regional Friday at Columbia, S.C. Times are still to be determined.

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

Rick Cleveland

• State will go in as a No. 5 seed, and if you are looking for omens, there’s this: The Bulldogs were a 5-seed in 1996, the only time in history a Mississippi team has ever advanced to the Final Four.

• On the selection show, hosts Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis both picked Liberty to upset State. Could happen, I suppose, but a glance at Liberty’s record doesn’t convince me. The Flames won the Atlantic Sun Conference and finished with an impressive 28-6 record. But – and this is a huge but – Liberty lost both games it played against Southeastern Conference teams, by nine points to lowly Vanderbilt and by nine to Alabama. In other games against power conference teams, Liberty lost to Virginia Tech (by 16) and Georgetown (by 10) and defeated UCLA by 15. Note: This is not your daddy’s UCLA. The Bruins finished 17-16.

• UCLA is one of the three schools State coach Ben Howland previously took to the NCAA Tournament (Northern Arizona once, Pittsburgh twice and UCLA seven times). This will be Howland’s 11th time in the NCAA Tournament as a head coach.

• The winner of State-Liberty will face the either Virginia Tech or St. Louis in the next round. At first glance, either foe looks beat-able for State. The Sweet 16 is a real possibility if State plays well.

• Most Mississippians know Liberty as either the late Jerry Falwell’s school or Hugh Freeze’s new school. Freeze, returning a text message asking what he knew about Liberty basketball, said this: “I saw them enough to know this guy (Liberty coach Ritchie McKay) can really coach.” McKay came to Liberty from Virginia where he was the associate head coach under Tony Bennett.

• Speaking of Virginia, the winner of the Ole Miss-Oklahoma game most likely will play top-seeded Virginia, the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season champion, in the second round. Many experts consider the Cavs the best team, overall, in the tournament.

• Oklahoma played two games against SEC foes, beating Florida by five on a neutral court and manhandling Vandy by 31 at Norman, Okla. The Sooners have some impressive victories but finished a disappointing 7-11 in the Big 12 Conference. The Sooners defeated feisty Wofford by 11 points, and also own victories over Kansas and Texas. Still, they lost 11 times in their own league.

Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

Kermit Davis, Jr. will be making his sixth trip to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach.

• Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger should be no stranger to Ole Miss fans. This is the fifth school he has taken to the NCAA Tournament, including the Florida Gators he took to the 1994 Final Four. Kruger took over the Gators in 1990 after Florida had finished 7-21. Kruger is one of two coaches in NCAA history to take over a sub-.500 team and take it to the Final Four within five years. The other is Rick Pitino, who did it both at Kentucky and Louisville. Kruger can coach.

• So can the Rebels’ Kermit Davis, Jr., the SEC Coach of the Year. Ole Miss, in a way, is playing with house money. Nobody expected the Rebels to be playing in the NCAA Tournament coming into this season.

• This will be Davis’ sixth trip to the NCAA tourney as a head coach. He took Idaho twice and Middle Tennessee State three times.