Ben Howland did everything he could to convince the public of Wofford’s quality. He was willing to distribute highlight clips to media members. He even created the time for a media availability before the game, just to ensure the game received the proper buildup.
After beating Wofford 98-87 Wednesday night, so soon after an even better win over Cincinnati, Howland’s days of justifying are over — at least, relative to his own team.
The No. 17 Bulldogs have proven themselves. There are two non-conference games remaining, beginning 6 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network) in Mississippi Coliseum against Wright State. However, given what Mississippi State has done so far, the true job left to do is to test itself against the Southeastern Conference.
A team worthy of the NCAA tournament needs to be tested by seeing its peers game in, game out for several consecutive weeks.
“I hope like hell I don’t have to play Mississippi State if we’re in that tournament,” Wofford coach Mike Young said. “The intensity, the fight of the kids, tooth and nail, not giving up an inch.”
In MSU, Young saw a frontcourt that he thought was good, but proved better than he expected. The senior, Aric Holman, hung 19 points and blocked four shots on his Terriers; the freshman, Reggie Perry, scored 12.
Then he laid eyes on the much ballyhooed backcourt.
“Let’s be honest: (sophomore point guard Lamar) Peters and the Weatherspoon boys (senior guard Quinndary and sophomore guard Nick), those are big strong man and they put their heads down and started driving,” Young said.
“What an elite guard (Peters) is, holy Toledo. Glad we don’t have to guard him in the Southern Conference.”
It is this package of tools that has helped the Bulldogs overwhelm opponents on the way to a 10-1 start. That same group has validated every preseason hope the team carried into its non-conference schedule.
A program that has not made the NCAA tournament since 2009 and has not won a game there since 2008 was suddenly a preseason top 25 team, and had a non-conference schedule worthy of challenging that status. It has since beaten three teams — Cincinnati, Wofford and Saint Mary’s — that are top 60 teams in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET), the new metric used by the selection committee. It has another win over a team just outside of the top 75, Dayton.
By that same metric, MSU is No. 18. If the season ended today, the conversation would not be if MSU would make the tournament, but if it could make a run to the Sweet 16.
Even with so much already in pocket, the final games of the non-conference schedule are far from a fait accompli. Wright State is second in the Horizon League by NET and Ken Pomeroy’s advanced numbers have it close to the top team in that league, Northern Kentucky; all of that is to say Wright State’s path to the NCAA tournament is very much alive.
That’s followed by a home game against BYU, a team Howland joked, “we’re playing against a bunch of guys that are 25, married with kids .”
But the Bulldogs have already proved their point. They can look fellow top teams in the eye and win the staredown when a special moment arises. What happens when that moment comes twice a week is all this team has left to prove.
“We’re a good team, we’re continuing to improve and we have to continue to show up,” Howland said.
Brett Hudson is the Mississippi State beat writer for The Dispatch. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Brett_Hudson.