STARKVILLE — So what does Mississippi State have to do to extend its season?
Not much. Just beat Kentucky for the first time since 2009. Take down a team that has won 15 straight contests over the Bulldogs. Knock off a team that is so confident it will secure a win over the Bulldogs, the team’s website already has a potential Friday rematch with Alabama firmly listed on its schedule (which may just be a humorous oversight from the Kentucky communications staff, but it’s there nevertheless).
So yeah, no pressure.
The Bulldogs (14-13, 8-10 SEC) will try to fire the 800-pound gorilla firmly implanted on their back into the sun by knocking off Kentucky for the first time in more than a decade, and in turn, extend their season at least one more day. MSU starts the postseason with a contest against Kentucky in the No. 8-9 matchup in the first round of the single-elimination SEC tournament at 11 a.m. Thursday in Nashville.
“I think our guys will be excited to play against the University of Kentucky,” MSU coach Ben Howland said. “Who wouldn’t be? They get to play in the SEC tournament, which is a whole new season.”
The good news is, this year’s version of MSU’s biggest boogeyman is as vulnerable as it’s ever been. Like MSU, Kentucky’s only hope of reaching the NCAA tournament is winning the conference tournament. Normally a lock for a double-bye in the SEC’s marquee event, the Wildcats (9-15, 8-9) have fallen on hard times and enter the tournament as an eight seed. If Kentucky doesn’t hoist the conference’s trophy, it will miss out on hearing its name called on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2013.
“We’re in the same boat (Kentucky) is,” Howland said of both team’s chances of earning an at-large selection. “I know it is a whole new season and teams are starting over. We’re going to bring our very best effort we can give here Thursday morning and I know they will, too.”
Of course, MSU knows how beatable Kentucky is first hand, having chance after chance to take Kentucky for the first time in the John Calipari era on Jan. 2. In that contest, the Bulldogs built a double-digit lead, Calipari was ejected after receiving a double tech, and the stage was set for an upset. But turnovers, missed free throws, and poor late game execution prevented the Bulldogs from a monumental win, eventually falling 78-73 in double overtime.
Both teams are playing relatively at the same level in recent weeks, as both MSU and Kentucky have won three of their last five games.
“They’re playing faster now,” Howland said. “They’re really pushing the ball hard in transition and really trying to get easy shots. And they’re playing their best basketball here late in the season … We know the history of the SEC Tournament and the history of Kentucky basketball are very much hand-in-hand. So we’re going to have to play incredibly well to have success.”
The SEC announced no more than 3,400 fans will be allowed to attend a tournament game, but considering MSU limited its home attendance to no more than 1,000 spectators for the majority of the year, Thursday’s contest may feature the most fans the Bulldogs have played in front of all year. If past Nashville experiences are any indication, the majority of those in attendance at Bridgestone Arena will be pulling for the Wildcats.
“There will be a lot of Kentucky folk there and that will be our mindset,” Howland said. “We are playing a road game, not just a game in the SEC Tournament. Those people travel and they show up.”
Matchup with Kentucky aside, Thursday will be a historic day in its own right, marking nearly a one-year anniversary of the cancellation of the SEC tournament due to COVID-19. While Howland still holds on to regrets of not being able to finish what he started with last year’s team, participating in a tournament this time around will be a much welcome change.
“I’d like to turn the clock back one year and give our team last year a chance to play in the SEC Tournament. It’s amazing how fast this year has gone by and this is where we were a year ago. We were a double-bye going into last year’s tournament and didn’t have a chance to compete at all.
“So we are grateful to have a chance to compete this year. It’s been absolutely phenomenal to play this season.”
If MSU beats Kentucky, it will face No. 1 seed Alabama at noon Friday in Nashville.
Hodge is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.
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