Tennessee plays at Mississippi State tonight, who no one is paying attention to.
In the 2017-2018 season, the SEC is arguably the best conference in college basketball in regards to parity. Typically, one or two elite teams sit at the top of the conference, while the rest fight for a tournament spot and the country knows who is going to win the league (Kentucky).
At this point in the season, the top half of the conference is separated by a total of four games in the standings and most pundits expect the SEC to have at least seven teams in the Big Dance. So why is the third-place team in the standings, Mississippi State, listed in Joe Lunardi’s first four out with less than a week left in the regular season?
That is because the Bulldogs, while sitting at 21-8 (9-7 SEC), have the 105th ranked strength of schedule in the country. Going into the season, Mississippi State likely was counting on Cincinnati and Dayton to beef up its nonconference schedule.
Cincinnati helped it, but State lost that game 65-50, and the 61-59 win over Dayton did not have the desired impact as the Flyers are the 122nd ranked team in the RPI. After a good win over No. 22 Arkansas to kick off SEC play, Ben Howland’s squad lost five of the next six games, and it looked as though they were going to miss out on the tournament.
Fast-forward one month, and Mississippi State has won seven of its last nine, with a chance at its best win of the season hosting No. 16 Tennessee at Humphrey Coliseum on Tuesday night. The Vols are coming off back-to-back wins over Florida and Ole Miss and are one game behind Auburn in the race for the SEC regular season title. While Mississippi State has a shot at a road win on Saturday at LSU, it may not be enough to stamp its ticket to the tournament, which makes Tuesday a must-win for the Bulldogs.
Howland’s team prides itself on defense and depth, and has a star in Quinndary Weatherspoon. Tennessee has protected its home court this season, only losing two games, but has struggled at times on the road. Mississippi State, meanwhile, has lost one home game all season, which came against Auburn.
State hauls in 37 rebounds per game, about one better than Tennessee’s average, so Rick Barnes and Tennessee need Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield to have a presence down low to win.
With the Mississippi State women’s team sitting at 30-0 and the men on the cusp of their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009, Starkville has become a basketball town again, and Tennessee has to be ready.