March 12, 2018 9:59:32 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State men's basketball coach Ben Howland had several wishes granted Sunday night.
MSU is back in the postseason for the first time since 2012 after accepting an invitation to the National Invitation Tournament. In addition to making the tournament, No. 4 seed MSU will play host to No. 5 seed Nebraska at 8 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN2) at Humphrey Coliseum.
The winner of the game between MSU and Nebraska will play the winner of the game between No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 8 seed Wagner in a second-round game Saturday or Monday.
"We are excited about playing in the NIT," said Howland, who is in his third season at MSU. "For a young team, a team with no seniors, this will be a great experience. None of these guys have ever played postseason basketball. It's a different feel. We can benefit from this experience going forward."
Howland led Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh, and UCLA to the NCAA tournament in his third season at each school. That streak ended Sunday when a school-record eight Southeastern Conference teams made the NCAA tournament without MSU.
MSU finished the regular season 22-11 and 9-9 in conference play. It beat LSU and lost to Tennessee at the SEC tournament in St. Louis. Any realistic NCAA hopes were dashed by losses in three of the final four games of the regular season.
Now, MSU will try to gain traction in the NIT and parlay it into next season.
"My second team at Pittsburgh made the NIT and the following year we made the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament," Howland said. "That's what you want. You want a chance to play, better yourself, and use this event to get you ready for next season."
The Bulldogs and Cornhuskers played an exhibition game Oct. 22 in Starkville. Nebraska won 76-72, but MSU played without center Abdul Ado. The Cornhuskers finished 22-10 and 13-5 in Big Ten Conference play.
"You take nothing away from that game," Howland said. "It feels like several years ago. Both teams have been through a lot since then. A practice game does not hold any comparison to a real, postseason game. They had a great year with some really big wins. It will be a huge challenge.
"The students are out for spring break, so we will need the community to step up, come out and show support for the team. It's difficult for an 8 o'clock game on a weeknight, but we need it."
MSU will play without Nick Weatherspoon. A member of the conference's All-Freshman team, Weatherspoon was injured Friday in the second half of a 62-59 loss to Tennessee.
Weatherspoon spent the night in a hospital. However, a cat scan came back positive Saturday and an MRI came back positive Sunday.
Howland said Weatherspoon's neck area is fine and that he doesn't have a fracture in his hip. Instead, he has a hip contusion and deep swelling and bruising around the bone.
"He won't play Wednesday," Howland said. "We don't know how long he will be out, but we aren't going to rule him out for the rest of the season. If we get on a roll and get to New York (for the tournament semifinals), hopefully, he could then come back some and help."
MSU will play in its ninth NIT. It is making its first appearance in the tournament since a first-round loss to Massachusetts in Rick Stansbury's final game in 2012. The school's deepest run came in 2007, when Stansbury took MSU to the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden.
"Every great player wants a chance to at least play one time in Madison Square Garden," Howland said. "It is the most historic venue in our sport. Out kids will be playing for a chance to do just that. That's motivation alone to play in what is a great event."
Quinndary Weatherspoon is averaging a team-best 14.8 points per game. He agrees with Howland that the Bulldogs want to make the most of their chance to play in the postseason.
"We've worked hard all year to get to postseason," Quinndary Weatherspoon said. "We're not just satisfied to be here. Our goal is to get to New York and win it all. When we are playing our best, we can beat anyone. I know we're all excited about this opportunity."
n NOTE: Current MSU season ticket holders have until noon today to purchase their existing seats or order more. At 3 p.m., tickets will be available for the general public at www.HailState.com/Tickets, or calling the ticket office at 1-888-GO-DAWGS.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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