Tennessee-Mississippi St. Preview
Mississippi State needed four wins in four days in last season’s
SEC tournament to sneak into the NCAA tournament, and it completed
that remarkable feat by knocking off Tennessee to claim the
conference’s automatic bid.
A win over Bruce Pearl’s team in the regular-season finale might
do the trick for the Bulldogs this time.
While the 16th-ranked Volunteers are playing for momentum and a
higher NCAA seed, Mississippi State’s hopes of making a third
consecutive NCAA tournament may be on the line Saturday night in
The Bulldogs (21-9, 9-6) appeared to be on the wrong side of the
bubble heading into the 2009 SEC tournament, but they punched their
ticket to the NCAA tournament with four consecutive wins in
Mississippi locked up its first SEC tournament title since 2002
by holding Tennessee to 29.0 percent shooting in a 64-61 win.
The teams haven’t met since then, but they come into this
matchup in similar situations to the ones they faced a year ago.
The Volunteers (22-7, 10-5) have won four of five, including a
74-65 win over then-No. 2 Kentucky on Feb. 27, to cement their spot
as a tournament team.
Pearl, though, wants to make sure his team is peaking with the
SEC tournament on the horizon next week in Nashville. Based upon
what he saw in Wednesday’s 80-73 win over Arkansas, there’s still
work to do.
“March won’t last very long if we play like that,” Pearl said.
“This could have been a letdown. It wasn’t a letdown. We were ready
to play, but I expected more. That play doesn’t win the SEC
tournament. That play doesn’t win a first-round NCAA tournament
The Bulldogs have one win over a ranked opponent – at then-No.
14 Ole Miss on Jan. 9 – but the Rebels have since faded. They came
close in their two other prime opportunities, but lost by three at
Vanderbilt on Feb. 3 and fell 81-75 in overtime to Kentucky on Feb.
Mississippi State has locked up at least a share of the
underwhelming SEC West and will be the division’s No. 1 seed next
week in Nashville. But without a win over Tennessee, it may need
another SEC tournament run to head back to the NCAAs.
The Bulldogs certainly didn’t bolster their resume Wednesday.
Auburn built a nine-point halftime lead by shooting 63 percent, and
though Mississippi State tied the score with 3:21 left, the Tigers
came away with an 89-80 win.
“The second half I thought our kids played with the aggression
you’ve got to play with,” coach Rick Stansbury said. “Every time we
tied it up in the second half, they knocked down huge shots.”
The biggest battle in this game will be between two of the SEC’s
premier big men. Jarvis Varnado will be playing his final game in
Starkville, and the 6-foot-9 forward has been going out on a high
note – he’s averaged 16.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.8 blocks in
his last four games.
Tennessee senior Wayne Chism, on the other hand, has struggled
lately. The Vols’ second-leading scorer (12.8 points per game)
behind Scott Hopson (13.1), Chism has been held to averages of 10.0
points and 5.5 boards over his last four contests.
Tennessee has the SEC East’s No. 3 spot locked up, but given
Pearl’s harsh words after the win over Arkansas, there’s plenty to
prove in Starkville, where the Vols have won two straight.
“It’s very important, but now you know you’ve got to bring your
‘A’ game in every game,” Chism said. “… Now it’s like, you didn’t
do a good job of playing so you’ve got to really step your game up
on the road.”