It wasn’t an Alabama vs. Mississippi State football game, but it sure felt like one.
One day after a heart-throbbing, elating victory over Kentucky, the Bulldogs were run out of Bridgestone Arena in a 85-48 SEC tournament quarterfinal loss Friday to No. 1 seed Alabama that will presumably end their season. Alabama’s 37-point win was the biggest margin of victory for a team in an SEC tournament game since 1997 and the fourth largest all time.
“To get beat this badly was really a bitter pill,” MSU coach Ben Howland said.
MSU entered the matchup with the SEC champs with cautious optimism. The Bulldogs played two competitive, single-digit contests with the Crimson Tide earlier in the year, and arguably defended them better than any other team in the conference.
This game was, well, nothing like either previous contest.
“We played them twice before and played them incredibly tough and had a chance to win both of those games,” Howland said. “That’s why it’s so frustrating to lose so poorly and so badly the way we did today.”
There was no reason to keep watching after one half for the maroon and white faithful. Alabama was so suffocating defensively MSU had more free throws made than field goals, tying a season low for points in a half with 19. Defensively, Alabama’s crisp ball movement disoriented MSU to the point deploying help-side defense only resulted in multiple open looks for the Crimson Tide beyond the perimeter. Turnovers plagued MSU throughout the entire season, but you know you’re having a bad day when you nearly match your season average (16) of giveaways after one half (14). It was Murphy’s Law: Anything that could go wrong did go wrong for MSU to the point it found itself on the wrong side of history. The Bulldogs entered their locker room staring at the largest halftime deficit in the SEC tournament in the last 40 years, 47-19.
While the humiliating loss is certainly going to sting this team for at least a few days, the focus surrounding the Bulldogs quickly turns to the future.
In the interim, an NIT bid is theoretically possible, however unlikely, considering the field has been slashed from 32 teams to 16. Howland told reporters he thinks there’s “an outside chance” MSU (15-14) is invited to play in the NIT but won’t know until after Selection Sunday.
From a big-picture perspective, the 2020-2021 Bulldogs finished three spots higher in the conference than their forecast in the preseason polls yet also left their fans wanting more after a hot start in conference play followed by losing 6 of 7 SEC games. One could argue the inconsistency on the offensive end that occurred all too often could be expected for a team so heavily reliant on underclassmen after losing its top four scorers from the 2019-2020 team that never got to finish its season. That doesn’t make the long scoring droughts any less frustrating, though.
But those around the program are thrilled with the emergence of D.J. Stewart, Iverson Molinar and Tolu Smith as consistent scorers and the emergence of more pieces to a core that includes Derek Fountain, Deivon Smith, Cameron Matthews and others. Longtime center Abdul Ado also could return for another season if he so wishes because of the NCAA extending all winter athletes’ eligibility. After the loss, Ado, who has started more games for the Bulldogs than any other player in program history, said he didn’t know if he’d return or move on.
“I’ve built relationships with a lot of people that will forever be with me,” Ado said of his time at MSU. “The community has made me into a grown man … It truly means a lot. I can only say I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
The first order of business for Howland over the next few weeks will be doing his best to ensure he retains the core of this team in addition to making impactful additions. One piece of the puzzle appears solved, as Molinar told reporters Friday he intends to return for his junior season. Stewart could also return for his junior season but has been projected to go in the second round in several NBA mock drafts, so the guard will have a decision to make in the coming months.
“Overall I think the guys that are young and will be returning on this team are young and will have garnered a lot of experience and a lot of learning that will help them in the year to come,” Howland said postgame.
Should the majority return to Starkville next year, Howland will have an experienced group that will have NCAA tournament or bust expectations from MSU fans and administration alike.
“There’s always a sense of urgency. But now the guys that played this year have a lot more experience,” Howland said. “… There’s definitely a sense of urgency to have a really good season next year and get us back in the NCAA tournament.”
Hodge is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.
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