Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Mississippi State

Back during the 2014 and/or 2015 coaching searches, I remember there being a fairly strong desire from online Tennessee fans for Ben Howland. After all, Howland had just been let go by UCLA after the 2013 season, and it isn’t every day there’s a coach on the market with three consecutive Final Four appearances, especially when they’re as recent as 2006-2008. (At the time, this was recent.) Perhaps what we didn’t know – or chose to not see – was that after the final of those Final Four appearances, the UCLA program cratered. They went 117th-52nd-58th-46th on KenPom over his final four seasons, didn’t escape the second round, and were instantly better under new HC Steve Alford.

Howland got scooped up by Mississippi State, who needed literally anything they could get after the Rick Ray error. Again, at the time, it felt like the Bulldogs were seen as making the better hire between them and Tennessee heading into the 2015-16 season. Over 5.5 seasons, Mississippi State has finished inside the KenPom top 40 once, has made one NCAA Tournament, and bombed out to Liberty in the first round. Rick Barnes, whether you like him or not, is headed towards posting his third top-20 finish at Tennessee and has the third-best defense in the country. Funny how these things work out.

Game Information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Mississippi State (9-7, 4-4).
  • THE TIME: 7 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS (by request): Tom Hart PBP, Jimmy Dykes color.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -9.5.

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Show Me My Opponent: Mississippi State

(checking Bracket Matrix to see how high my interest is for this game)

Alright, looks like Mississippi State’s settled in right on the bubble. A win in this game and they’ll be right in the mix, as of early February, anyway. I don’t know how people do the whole bracketology thing before the day after the Super Bowl, but I also watch basketball every single day of my life, so, I get it. Anyway, let’s check in on Tennessee…

…alright, pivoting to Back-Up Topic #2.

If you’re my age – 26 – the earliest realistic season of basketball you probably remember is around the year 2000. If you’re older or younger by a few years, shift it in either direction. For the longest part of my life, outside of a random pair of years in the early 2000s – 2002 and 2004, to be exact – Mississippi State basketball has been a pure afterthought. From 2002 to 2005, they made the NCAA Tournament four straight years, with the first three of those resulting in 3, 5, and 2 seeds. On average, getting said seeds would result in about 5.4 wins. Line those wins up right, and you should be looking at a Sweet Sixteen or even an Elite Eight run.

Instead, Mississippi State went 2-3 across those three runs. A 3 seed in 2002 resulted in a Round of 32 crash-out against 6 seed Texas; 2003’s 5 seed became a 47-46 upset loss to 12 seed Butler; most notably, 2004’s 2 seed resulted in a second round demolition by the hands of 7 seed Xavier. Since then, State hasn’t sniffed serious, consistent success, the closest being last year’s run to a 5 seed that resulted in an infuriating (if you’re a State fan, or if you are the writer of this post and have Thoughts on Liberty University) loss to 12 seed Liberty. The most recent State Sweet Sixteen run is still in 1996, which is also the most recent and only Elite Eight run, which is also the most recent and only Final Four run in school history.

Seriously: Mississippi State, once upon a time, made a Final Four as a 5 seed. They had to beat the 1 and 2 seeds in their region to get there. They had a pair of future pros on their roster in Erick Dampier and Dontae Jones, but the team’s best player was Darryl Wilson, an Alabama native that wore #00 and shot 41% from three. Amazingly, they are not the 1996 Final Four participant that would be the most confusing to imagine making a Final Four today; that would be John Calipari-coached Massachusetts.

I have nothing more to share on this topic, other than I would greatly enjoy talking to someone about how baffling the 1996 Mississippi State Final Four run must have been.

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