Walking through the halls of Amalie Arena, his star players in tow, Ben Howland knew it was over.
After Mississippi State lost to Tennessee in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament on Friday in Tampa, the Bulldogs coach knew the NCAA tournament was no longer a possibility. His team’s NET ranking was too low to qualify as an at-large bid, and its KenPom.com metrics weren’t enough. For MSU, the season would end in an NIT invitation for the second straight year.
As he walked to the postgame press conference alongside guard Iverson Molinar and forward Tolu Smith, Howland knew his players were disappointed, but they wanted to carry on.
“They were both excited to keep playing,” Howland said.
Mississippi State (18-15, 8-10 SEC) has a chance to do that, beginning its NIT run at 6 p.m. Wednesday against Virginia (19-13, 12-8 ACC). The game will be at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville because of ongoing renovations at Humphrey Coliseum.
“It’s a real thrill from my standpoint to be playing in this game,” Howland said.
Mississippi State made a run to last season’s NIT championship game, losing to Memphis in the title contest. Howland said prior to the current season the Bulldogs’ extra experience would help springboard his team just like it did when MSU reached the semifinals of the event in 2018 and made the NCAA tournament the following season.
Howland said it always helps college players to participate in some sort of postseason and noted MSU’s run did come with benefits. Cameron Matthews, who played in the 2021 NIT as a freshman, profited from the experience. Molinar did, too.
But the push Mississippi State expected to make never came.
“I thought that would do the same for us this year, and obviously we had some things that happened in the meantime that I wasn’t counting on,” Howland said.
The seventh-year MSU coach said he expected to have guard D.J. Stewart Jr. back for his junior year. Stewart entered the 2021 NBA draft but was not selected, ending up in the NBA G-League instead.
Howland said before the season and again Tuesday that the No. 1 key to success for any team is health, but the Bulldogs lacked it this year. Michigan State transfer guard Rocket Watts won’t travel to Charlottesville because of an elbow injury suffered late in the season, while Smith has played in just 20 of Mississippi State’s 33 games so far, though he has been active for the past 12 contests and found a rhythm late in the season.
Smith suffered injuries to both feet, tested positive for COVID-19 and partially dislocated his kneecap.
“That was a tough break for us this year with Tolu, and I’m really happy that he’s gone now here late in the year and played a bunch of games in a row,” Howland said. “You can see his level of play going up.”
Smith’s promise and a recruiting class led by Florida guard Riley Kugel have Howland excited about the Bulldogs’ potential next season — particularly if Molinar spurns the draft to return for his senior year.
Asked about his future with the program, Howland said he wants to be back for an eighth season despite rumors this year will be his last.
“If that does happen, I would be disappointed to not have a chance to coach this team that returned,” Howland said.
But he’s still in charge as the Bulldogs take on a Virginia team that posted a solid record in a weak ACC, exiting the conference tournament in the second round against North Carolina. The Cavaliers were a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament last year and won the 2019 event, so Howland knows not to bet against them.
“I think we have the toughest draw in the NIT because we’re supposed to be hosting as a 3 seed,” Howland said. “Not only are we going to go on the road, we’re going to play the hardest team we could possibly play to be on the road against.”
Forward Garrison Brooks, familiar with the Cavaliers from his time at UNC, told his teammates in the Bulldogs’ group message that “it’s going to be a football game” in terms of physicality.
With both teams’ defenses superior to their offenses, it could resemble the gridiron on the scoreboard, too.
“He played against them for four years and has great respect for Virginia and just how physical they are, how tough they are, how they fight you for everything,” Howland said of Brooks.
Howland is familiar with Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett from their time in the Pac-10 (later Pac-12), when Howland was at UCLA and Bennett at Washington State. Bennett and his father Dick both coached the Cougars to rare wins at the Bruins’ Pauley Pavilion, where WSU had never previously won.
“When you play Dick Bennett and Tony Bennett at Washington State, it’s like getting a root canal,” Howland said. “It’s not fun.”
This year’s Virginia team doesn’t have the same spark as its No. 1-seeded teams in 2018 and 2019, but UVA still has some of the hallmarks of its past success.
The Cavaliers remain strong at limiting turnovers, force opponents to make tough shots and play at the second-slowest tempo in the country.
“It’s a very patient, controlled game where they’re going to have the ball a lot in their hands,” Howland said.
East Carolina transfer Jayden Gardner leads Virginia with 15.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Howland said Gardner’s 6-foot-6 frame and ability to score anywhere inside the 3-point arc make him tough to match up with.
“He’s a real presence, and we’re going to have to try to hold our own physically with him,” Howland said. “At 246 pounds, he’s a big boy.”
Despite Gardner’s talent and Virginia’s tradition, the Bulldogs still have the edge in metrics, owning the No. 45 spot in KenPom to the Cavaliers’ No. 84 ranking.
With the future of its head coach in question and no national title on the line, Mississippi State could understandably be unmotivated to play its best Wednesday night.
But Howland assured the Bulldogs will try their hardest to close the season with another NIT run and leave the rumors all behind.
“We’ll just worry about that later,” Howland said. “Right now, my biggest concern is just getting ready for this game that we’re going to play tomorrow night in Charlottesville.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.