Reggie Perry slams one home for Bulldogs, but it was his defense that drew Coach Ben Howland’s praise.

Mississippi State defeated Alabama 80-73 Tuesday night in a hard-played, hotly contested victory that, in essence, was college basketball’s equivalent of holding serve.

As a result, Mississippi State moves to 18-10 overall and a quite respectable 9-6 in the Southeastern Conference, good for fifth place overall before Wednesday night’s games. The victory was the Bulldogs’ seventh straight SEC win at The Hump, a feat that is keeping State in the NCAA Tournament conversation.

Rick Cleveland

That’s the good news for Bulldogs fans. The bad: Most NCAA Tournament bracket experts, for whatever reason, project the SEC as a four-team league this season. Where March Madness is concerned, the Bulldogs are still on the outside looking in. Most bracket prognosticators have State as one of the first four teams out of the tournament.

Said State coach Ben Howland Wednesday morning of Tuesday night’s victory, “I thought we played the best game we have played in a long, long time. We beat a good team that played very well. My best teams at Pittsburgh and UCLA won with defense and I thought we played really good defense last night, especially in the second half. Reggie Perry was outstanding defensively, and that was huge.”

The Bulldogs have three games remaining: at Missouri (Saturday), at South Carolina (March 3) and Ole Miss at home (March 7).

“Nine and six in the league doesn’t mean anything right now,” Howland said. “We have three critical games remaining and we have to survive the next one on the road against a really good team that is playing extremely well right now. They beat Auburn like a drum. They beat Ole Miss, a really tough team to play, at home. They beat Arkansas at home. They easily could have beaten LSU. It’s gonna be a real challenge playing there on a Saturday afternoon before a big crowd.”

Important to note: While the Bulldogs have won seven straight SEC home games and are 7-1 at home, they have won only two of seven on the road. Obviously, they are going to have to play better on the road in the coming days to head into the SEC Tournament with a decent shot at making the NCAA Tournament.

The truth is, the Bulldogs have looked like a solid NCAA Tournament team at home and an NIT team (or worse) on the road. Granted, the same can be said of many, many college basketball teams. Nevertheless, State has been good enough to own double-digit, home victories over Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. They have been bad enough to lose by 21 to Alabama, by 25 to Ole Miss and by 12 to Texas A&M on the road.

Ben Howland makes a point during a timeout

My opinion – and one Howland disagrees with – is that much of that inconsistency has to do with the lack of a true point guard. Nick Weatherspoon, who plays the point, is better suited to play the off-guard position. When he plays well, as he did Tuesday night with three assists and only one turnover, State is a much better team. When he doesn’t protect the ball, as has often been the case (five turnovers at A&M, six at Ole Miss, six at home against Auburn), the Bulldogs suffer.

“Nick is fine, he’s getting better,” Howland said. “He’s one of the leaders in the conference in assists. He’s fine.”

Weatherspoon has 78 assists, compared to 55 turnovers. Tyson Carter, another more natural off-guard, usually plays the point when Weatherspoon doesn’t. He has accounted for 89 assists, 60 turnovers.

Howland and his staff have successfully recruited one of the nation’s most highly rated point guards, Deivon Smith, from all reports a special talent, out of the Atlanta area. But that’s next season. The Bulldogs have work to do – and lots of it – this season. It will take more efforts – and performances – like the one Tuesday night to be successful.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.