STARKVILLE — When Jarvis Varnado and Barry Stewart sat together Monday and spoke about Senior Night, they didn”t think their already slim chances of making the NCAA tournament would be even slimmer.
Following Wednesday”s 89-80 loss at Auburn, the Mississippi State Bulldogs (21-9, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) enter Senior Night on Saturday looking to pull an upset on their home court against No. 16 Tennessee.
The two Tennessee natives and roommates are the team”s only seniors and have largely been lauded for their defensive skills during their careers.
They”re record holders, both in Mississippi State history, and Varnado in the NCAA record books.
They”re also close to playing in the NIT instead of the NCAA tournament for the first time since they were freshman.
Mississippi State”s loss to Auburn dropped the Bulldogs to 59th in RealtimeRPI.com”s RPI rankings and has made the Volunteers, known for toppling potential NCAA tourney No. 1 seeds Kansas and Kentucky this season, the deer”s head to impress the selection committee.
With an ESPN broadcast set for 5 p.m. Saturday, what better way to virtually earn an an NCAA Tournament at-large berth, have less pressure next week at the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn.,, and celebrate the last games for Varnado and Stewart than with a win against Tennessee?
“You always get up for your home state,” Varnado said. “You”ve got something to prove. Like against Vanderbilt, we wanted to win that game so bad. But we”ve got something at stake as well, trying to win the West and get into the (NCAA) tournament.”
Truth is, Saturday”s game would have been a “must-win” either way. But because of Wednesday”s loss, the Bulldogs, who”ve clinched a No. 1 seed in the SEC tourney with a share of the SEC West crown, must win and also have Ole Miss lose at Arkansas to win the West outright.
The players know the Auburn loss hurt their chances just as bad as a win against Tennessee would have done for their odds of getting into the NCAA tourney field.
“We thought about it a lot before the game,” MSU sophomore guard Dee Bost said Wednesday. “We knew we couldn”t lose this game to get into the tournament so this is a big loss on the resume.”
With the stakes understood, the Bulldogs will have as much energy ever with it being Senior Night for Stewart and newly-crowned NCAA block king, Varnado.
Plus, the game is a rematch of last year”s SEC Tournament championship game, which MSU won to clinch an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl is aware of the recent trends of top teams losing on the road.
“At this time of the year, the upsets are happening on home courts,” Pearl said. “The back stretch for Tennessee has been difficult this season. First we had Kentucky. Now, we”ve got Senior Night for Jarvis Varnado. A great defensive team that shoots the three.”
At the center of MSU”s defense are Varnado and Stewart, who”ll carry added emotion to the court Saturday knowing it could be their last time playing at Humphrey Coliseum. That is, if they win and get into the NCAA tournament. A loss could result in hosting a first-round NIT game.
“It”s going to be emotions everywhere being hype for the game playing your home state,” Stewart said. “It would be a good win for the committee.”
Varnado was lighthearted when talking about Senior Night, saying his first job would be “to keep this guy (Stewart) from crying.”
The pair have history outside of MSU when they competed on the AAU circuit and in a high school all-star game.
“After high school, we played the east and west game and the east kicked the west”s butt,” Stewart said. “We had some words (jokes) after the game and were friends. We got here (MSU) and were in the dorm (Hurst Hall) together. Our friendship has grown. To be able to break a record together, it was amazing.”
All that”s left for the duo to do is deliver their Humphrey Coliseum swan song with a win against Tennessee.