STARKVILLE – Kermit Davis Jr. is a basketball coach – not a bracketologist – but he had a message for those who will select the NCAA Tournament field next weekend.
“Of course Mississippi State deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament,” Davis said. “You win as many games as they’ve won in this league and you deserve to be in.”
Davis was talking after his alma mater, State, swamped the Ole Miss Rebels he now coaches, 69-44, in the final regular season game. The Bulldogs, playing an inspired, suffocating defense, dominated the Rebels. Thus, State ends the season with a 20-11 overall record, 11-7 in the Southeastern Conference. The Bulldogs will be the fourth seed in next week’s SEC Tournament at Nashville and has a double bye into Friday’s quarterfinals.
Yet all the Joe Lunardis and Andy Katzes of the world – the nationally known bracketologists – have the Bulldogs as one of the teams just outside the 68-team NCAA field.
“That’s ridiculous,” Davis said. “You put that team in the Big Ten Conference and they’d be in. For some reason, the SEC is not getting any respect.”
For sure, State looked like an NCAA Tournament team Saturday night and Reggie Perry looked All-World and like a first-round NBA draft pick. Perry, perhaps playing for the last time at The Hump, scored 22 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. “Like a man playing against boys,” is the way Davis described him and he’ll get no argument here. Perry out-muscled – and out-hustled – the Ole Miss big men. He beat the Rebels and he beat them up.
It was a stark (Vegas) turnaround from a Feb. 11 meeting between the two teams at Oxford when the Rebels routed State 83-58 and Breein Tyree scored 40 points, outscoring the Bulldogs by himself in the second half. This time, State doubled Tyree virtually every time he got the ball and Ole Miss seemed helpless to make the Bulldogs pay for the double teams. Somebody should have been open. If so, Tyree could not find them. He hit just four of 13 shots and scored 11 points, nine below his average.
How to explain what amounts to a 50-point turnaround? Ole Miss won by 25 at Oxford. State won by 25 in Starkville. State coach Ben Howland’s excellent defensive plan surely was part of it. “Best defense we’ve played since I’ve been here,” Howland said. Nick Weatherspoon’s vastly improved point guard play was another. And there’s surely some truth to what Davis said about his team’s lack of toughness on the road.
Of all those factors, Weatherspoon’s excellence Saturday night – compared to his ineptitude in the first meeting – might have been the biggest difference. He was scoreless and committed six turnovers with zero assists at Oxford. He scored 11 points, passed out six assists, stole the ball four times and committed not a single turnover in the return match. He was everything you want in a point guard Saturday night. If he plays that way at Nashville, look out for State.
Besides his offensive precision, Weatherspoon was excellent on defense. He often teamed with Abdul Ado on those double-teams of Tyree, and, as Howland put it, “Those are our two toughest defenders.”
In the earlier meeting, State led by 14 in the first half before being outscored by 39 points over the last 30 minutes of the game. Saturday night, the game was tied at 20 before State outscored the Rebels 49-24 the rest of the way.
Saturday night’s second half was like a maroon and white-themed Mississippi State party. The Bulldogs simply had their way. Senior Tyson Carter, who has had a splendid career in the footsteps of his father Greg, scored nine points with four assists and a steal in his last game at The Hump. When Howland subbed for him late, Carter, got down in push-up position at mid-court and kissed the floor. It was a touching moment – and one that Howland became emotional talking about afterward.
When Howland subbed for Perry a few seconds later, Perry took several bows to thunderous applause before he took a seat.
When told of Davis’s comments about his team deserving to be in the NCAA Tournament, Howland had this to say: “Kermit is a really classy guy, a coach’s coach and I have great respect for him. He wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it. And, he would know.”
Bottom line: What Kermit Davis Jr. says has absolutely no sway with what the NCAA Tournament selection committee decides.
“We still have work to do,” Howland said. “And we know it.”