NCAA Tournament primer: Mississippi State's opening opponent and more
Mississippi State was cautiously optimistic that it would receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019.
It realized the bid might come in the form of a play-in berth.
And that’s exactly what happened Sunday.
But the Bulldogs (21-12, 8-10 SEC) aren’t going to fret about having to win their way into the field of 64. They’re in the tournament – facing fellow No. 11 seed Pitt on Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio.
“We’re going dancing,” first-year coach Chris Jans said. “That was the ultimate goal that we had.”
State, which started 11-0 before losing 7 of its first 8 SEC games and rallying, was able to breathe a little easier after its 69-68 overtime win against Florida in its SEC Tournament opener, though its subsequent 72-49 loss to Alabama in the Bulldogs’ lowest-scoring game of the season might have solidified Dayton as the team’s destination.
Nonetheless State is playing beyond the SEC Tournament. That’s an accomplishment for a program that hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2008.
Here’s a look at the Bulldogs’ opening opponent and a prediction of how far they’ll advance in the NCAA Tournament:
The Panthers (22-11, 14-6 ACC) stayed on a more even keel than the Bulldogs did, finishing 5-3 out of conference, starting 6-1 in the ACC and going 4-5 down the stretch leading into the ACC Tournament.
Pitt’s pre-selection part of Sunday was probably a lot like State’s, being reasonably confident that its name would be called, but understanding that any hopes of reaching the Final Four could begin with having to advance out of the First Four.
How they got here: They received an at-large bid after finishing 3rd in the ACC regular season and splitting 2 games in the conference tournament to earn their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2016.
Top player: Jamarius Burton, guard
The graduate transfer from Texas Tech was 1 of just 3 ACC players to average at least 15.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists. He was named to the All-ACC first team after finishing in the league’s top 10 in field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and assists.
What they do best: The Panthers play a contrasting style to the defensive-minded Bulldogs.
Pitt was 2nd in the ACC in 3-pointers made, averaging 9.34 per game. They scored 75 or more points in 8 of their past 10 games.
For the season they averaged 76.1 points and shot 36.0 percent on 3-pointers.
Best win this season: Pitt went on the road early in the season and dominated a Northwestern team that wound up being a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, 87-58.
Honorable mention goes to much more competitive victories at home against Miami (71-68) and Virginia (68-65), both of which also made the NCAA Tournament.
Most important thing to know about the Panthers: Though this group hasn’t had any success together before this season, experience is a major asset.
Pitt has 4 transfers, including 3 graduate students, who elevated the program after 4 consecutive losing seasons.
The quickness with which the group jelled led to 5th-year coach Jeff Capel, whose job was on the line entering the season, being named ACC coach of the Year.
The Bulldogs’ stifling defense will keep the score lower than the Panthers are comfortable with and Tolu Smith will be the difference-maker in the paint. Mississippi State 67, Pitt 64.
Beyond the opener
The Bulldogs will advance to play No. 6 seed Iowa State in the traditional opening round Friday afternoon in Greensboro, N.C. The Cyclones’ will be less of a contrast to the Bulldogs’ style than Pitt represents.
A win against Iowa State would send State against the winner of the game between No. 3 Xavier and No. 14 Kennesaw State.
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