STARKVILLE — Following Mississippi State’s Southeastern Conference tournament loss to Alabama, Ben Howland thought his team only had an “outside shot” of getting into the NIT.
Then came a flurry of opt-outs from teams that had no interest in going to college basketball’s consolation tournament. Pair that with the fact officials from the NIT reached out to MSU to gauge its interest in the tournament before the SEC tournament started, and the sixth-year coach knew the chances of continuing the Bulldogs’ season were growing by the hour Sunday.
Filled with a roster of mostly underclassmen and players in a starting role for the first time, Howland jumped at the chance to continue playing postseason basketball when presented with an invite. The Bulldogs start NIT play as a No. 4 seed with a matchup against No. 1 Saint Louis at 4 p.m. Saturday in Frisco, Texas. If victorious, MSU will play Richmond, who defeated Toledo 76-66 Wednesday, on March 25.
“I was excited, honestly,” Howland said of learning MSU would be in the 16-team field. “… We are a young team. Any time you can get some postseason experience, I think it helps kids. There’s only the 68 plus 16 teams that are playing (in the postseason), everybody else is done … We went through a year last year where we didn’t get to play in the SEC tournament. We had a double bye. So, to have a chance to still be playing, to be hooping, to be playing ball, what’s better than this?”
Howland said he expects his full roster will be available against Saint Louis and doesn’t expect any players to opt out of the NIT. It will be the 10th overall NIT appearance for the Bulldogs and the first since the 2017-2018 season when a Quinndary Weatherspoon-led MSU team reached the NIT semifinals. One year later, the Bulldogs were in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.
“I think a lot of times with a young team that plays in the NIT, you’re trying to use this as a springboard into next season, especially when it comes to postseason play,” Howland said. “We hope that’s the case. I’ve seen it happen many times. It definitely helped us that year going into 2019. It was a good experience.”
MSU has won four of its last five NIT openers, but this time it will be going against a Saint Louis team that was the third team out of the NCAA tournament. Saturday will mark the first time the Bulldogs have seen SLU since the 2014-2015 season, when MSU earned a 75-50 victory.
Saint Louis has feasted on home cooking this season, going 12-1 in its own building compared to a 2-5 record when it plays elsewhere. For context, MSU went 5-4 on the road this season.
Offensively, Saint Louis is heavily reliant on two players considering it only has two double-digit scorers on the roster: 6-foot-6 forward Javonte Perkins (17 points per game) and guard Jordan Goodwin (14.5 ppg).
“They’re a very good team, and they’re very well coached,” Howland said. “(SLU coach Travis Ford) does an outstanding job. They shoot it. They’re good around the basket. They’ll change defenses. They’re primarily man-to-man, but they will also play three different zones. They’ll play a 1-3-1, they’ll play a 3-2, and they’ll even play a little bit of a 2-3. They’re tough.”
Looking ahead in a single-game elimination may be a fool’s errand, but if the Bulldogs can pick up two victories, a matchup with either Ole Miss or Western Kentucky, coached by former MSU coach Rick Stansbury, remains a possibility.
Hodge is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.
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