STARKVILLE — During a time of year when dancing has become an ever-present part of the season, Mississippi State’s maroon suede shoes will remain in their box in 2021.
There’s no foxtrot to be had. No cha cha looming. Perhaps a slow waltz in honor of the slog of a season that finally found its end is due.
Speaking of waltzes, Louisville coach Jeff Walz has the Cardinals as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Remember him from last offseason’s coaching search?
The lack of dancing around Starkville this spring isn’t due to some Footloose-ian town ordinance or anything of the like, though. Rather, it’s born out of pure basketball-based ineptitude.
Monday, MSU was left out of the 64-team NCAA tournament field for the first time since the 2013-14 season and, in all reality, it wasn’t that close. ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme had the Bulldogs listed as the first team out ahead of the selection show. When the slate was finally revealed, MSU not only wasn’t the first team out, it wasn’t even one of four potential replacement teams should any COVID-19 related issues prevent a previously selected squad from playing.
Monday night marked the start of an offseason that will swirl with questions, tension and, presumably, some changeover. But, for now, let’s look back on the year that was.
Call the 2020-21 season what it was: disappointing, sad, underwhelming. Most variations of the word “bad” work fine. In short, McCray-Penson’s first season taking over for Vic Schaefer was a disaster.
There are, of course, caveats to the problems, sure. The lineup returned just four players who played more than 14 minutes per game a season ago. The nucleus of this year’s squad — sophomore Rickea Jackson, junior Myah Taylor and classmate Jessika Carter — were still green in major roles themselves after heavy minutes last year.
Through no fault of its own, MSU also missed seven games this season due to varying COVID-19-related issues with its opponents. Two of those games — at Ole Miss and home against Tennessee — presumably would’ve helped the Bulldogs’ tournament resume had they won. So too would have an early-season tournament against eventual No. 1 overall seed UConn.
Yet therein lies the problem. MSU had chances at padding its resume taken away, but it also failed wildly in the opportunities it was actually presented.
The Bulldogs lost seven of their last nine games — the lone wins coming over an Auburn team that finished winless in the conference and just fired its coach and an LSU squad that was just 9-13 on the year. It trailed by double-digits in all of those contests. Every. Single. One.
In games against South Carolina and Texas A&M, MSU was lifeless despite spending the past nine seasons working ever so hard to match the SEC’s elite over the past decade.
Even Alabama, a squad MSU lost to just four times since 2011, ran the Bulldogs off the floor in Tuscaloosa in a contest McCray-Penson’s bunch desperately needed to keep its tournament hopes alive.
Need more evidence at this year’s downturn? Take a look at the stats. The 2020-21 team saw its marks dip in points per game, field goal percentage, field goals per game, free throw percentage and steals. The Bulldogs increased in turnovers.
MSU’s opponents, by contrast, saw a boost in points per game (60.6 to 67.6 this year), rebounds (35 to 38 per game) and assists (10.8 to 11.9 per contest).
For months, McCray-Penson harped that MSU would find its stride later in the year, presumably February. It would happen, she said, the Bulldogs just needed games. Now through January, February and into March, MSU played its games. Nearly 50 percent of the time, the Bulldogs lost.
Monday, the NCAA women’s basketball tournament field was revealed and for the first time in five years, MSU wasn’t a part of it. A source with knowledge of the situation confirmed to The Dispatch the Bulldogs had also declined an invite to the WNIT days ago.
In fairness, both journalistically and as a human being, one season under a head coach shouldn’t be a complete indictment on that person. McCray-Penson’s teams dramatically improved year-to-year during her time at Old Dominion, capping it off with a 24-6 season during her third year before she was hired away.
Reinforcements are hypothetically on the way in the form of top-55 guard Jasmine Shavers, three-star point guard Mia Moore and under-the-radar forward Denae Carter as well. KN’isha Godfrey, MSU’s highest rated prospect in the 2021 class, is already on campus as a mid-year enrollee.
It’s also expected the Bulldogs will hit the transfer portal hard this offseason, whether that’s to replace departures or to make use of the handful of scholarships it still has to play with.
Combine that all with a bizarre year in which teams soldiered through a once-in-a-generation pandemic, and yes, there is reason to remain optimistic that 2020-21 was an outlier. That, of course, doesn’t make Monday’s result sting any less.
So what is there to take from this season? Honestly, not a hell of a lot. But hey, Jackson State will represent the Magnolia State in the Big Dance. Let’s give them the hand previously reserved for the state school in Starkville. Hit the jukebox.
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.