February 18, 2016 9:32:27 AM
A few weeks ago, ESPN.com's Charlie Creme called the Mississippi State women's basketball team's 65-63 overtime victory against Tennessee a "season-saver."
It didn't matter that the win was MSU's first in 37 meetings against Tennessee. Creme was more concerned about how the victory bolstered the Bulldogs' resume for NCAA tournament consideration. As ESPN's women's basketball "bracketologist," Creme believed the win solidified MSU's standing to earn one of the top 16 seeds and a chance to play host to the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Four games later, MSU faces another pivotal juncture. That's part of the beauty when you play in a league as challenging as the Southeastern Conference. It seems like every matchup can give you the momentum needed to make a run, only to be pushed two steps back in the next game.
At 6 tonight, No. 14 MSU (21-5, 8-4 SEC) faces its biggest test of the season when it plays host to No. 16 Kentucky (17-6, 6-6) at Humphrey Coliseum in its annual "Think Pink" game, which is designed to raise awareness for the fight against breast cancer. Creme was exactly right earlier this week when he wrote that tonight's game is the Bulldogs' last "resume-building game of the regular season." Creme said that in a breakdown of MSU at No. 15 in his projection of the NCAA's top 16 seeds for the NCAA tournament. With regular-season games remaining against Ole Miss (Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 162), Vanderbilt (76), and Alabama (145), MSU's last chance to enhance its RPI of 25, according to the NCAA, and its Strength of Schedule (SOS) of 67, according to RealTimeRPI.com, will be tonight. Kentucky has a RPI of 18 and a SOS of 22.
A victory against Kentucky would give MSU four wins against teams ranked in the national polls. It also would give the Bulldogs a sixth victory against top-50 teams, according to RealTimeRPI.com. Those numbers matter because prior to Wednesday's games MSU had 15 victories against teams with RPIs of 118 or higher and six against teams with RPIs of 214 or higher. Those totals are lower than Florida, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, teams that MSU figures to compete against for a chance to play host to the NCAA tournament.
Tonight's game also is pivotal for the SEC regular-season race. MSU enters the game tied with Texas A&M for second place behind South Carolina (12-0), which has clinched at least a share of the regular-season title. A 64-58 loss to the Aggies on Feb. 11 in College Station, Texas, cost the Bulldogs an opportunity to all but wrap up a top-four spot in the SEC. The top four teams in the league receive double-byes for the SEC tournament, which begins March 2 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Auburn, Georgia, and Florida are one-half to one full game behind MSU and Texas A&M. Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee are two games back in the loss column. MSU owns tiebreakers against Auburn and Florida. Georgia owns the tiebreaker against MSU.
Whew. It's easy to get bogged down by numbers at this time of the season. It's just as fun -- or puzzling -- to try to figure out the thinking of NCAA tournament selection committee members, especially when Florida gets added to the group of teams considered for the top 10 seeds in the NCAA tournament. MSU has been in that group for both of the first two NCAA top-10 "reveals." On Monday, Florida was added to the mix of other teams bubbling just under the top 10.
The best way to stop all of the speculation is to win, especially against an opponent like Kentucky. A year ago, MSU lost twice to Kentucky -- 92-90 in double overtime in Lexington, Kentucky, and 76-67 in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament in North Little Rock, Arkansas. A victory in either of those games would have improved MSU's chances of playing host to the NCAA tournament. As it worked out, MSU was sent to Durham, North Carolina, where it lost to host Duke in the second round.
Last season, the Bulldogs won all of the games they were supposed to and came close to upsetting some of the league's top teams. This season, MSU has followed a similar path to the one it took to a program-record 27 victories. It has come close to program-defining wins -- ones that teams aren't supposed to win, at least on paper -- at Texas and at home against then-No. 2 South Carolina. The loss at Texas A&M was another one of those games in which MSU was close, but it needed a few more plays to seal the deal.
Tonight is a chance to break through and earn a statement victory. Three years ago, MSU lost to Kentucky 100-47 in Lexington, Kentucky. MSU coach Vic Schaefer referenced that loss Wednesday when he discussed tonight's matchup. He used words like "relentless" and "fearless" to describe Kentucky's best player, junior guard Makayla Epps. When asked how much he hoped the Bulldogs played like Epps tonight, Schaefer said, "I think our kids do do that. I have a bunch of kids who play that way. ... A game like tomorrow night, we'll have to play well to have a chance to win. Another knock-down, drag-out is what we're expecting. I expect our kids to play well and play hard. We always do."
Schaefer continued his comment by saying MSU played hard at Texas A&M, too, but it didn't play well enough to win a game of that magnitude on the road because it made "lot of little mistakes" that contributed to the defeat.
MSU has to find a way to eliminate those mistakes if it is going to take the next step. Veteran television analyst Debbie Antonelli made a great point Wednesday when she said there is a difference between learning how to win and learning how to win big games. MSU is at that point.
Schaefer and his players have embraced expectations and pushed the program to heights many didn't imagine when he arrived in 2013. To begin to establish itself as a top-10 team, MSU has to develop a better understanding of the importance of every play, especially the final plays of quarters, because what might appear to be a harmless two or three points early in a game can turn out to be the difference in the fourth quarter.
A year ago, a missed box out or a missed free throw cost MSU at least two victories. With a team that relied heavily on freshmen and sophomores, it was a little easier to accept those plays and use them as learning experiences. With five games remaining in the regular season, there's no better time for those sophomores and juniors to put those lessons to use and to play like juniors and seniors. If they do, MSU can earn a program-defining win that should go a long way to adding another history-making chapter to what already has been a memorable 2015-16 season.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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