The closing of games will decide where the Bulldogs end their 2022 season
What’s that line from the dark drama…”coffee is for farms”? Well, if that’s the case in college basketball, there are plenty of Bulldogs who aren’t consuming caffeine these days. The inability to shut down Southeastern Conference opponents here at midtime has Mississippi State once again in a fragile state of the NCAA Tournament.
The latest frustration for Ben Howland’s ball club came on their home turf last night as Mississippi State and Tennessee faced off and fought in a crucial game. The Bulldogs started off slow, inexplicably, but found their rhythm in time to catch and pass the Volunteers for the first of seven lead changes and a tied nine points.
The last stalemate was at 4:21, the score 61-all and the opportunity wide open. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs couldn’t take it. More unfortunately, it didn’t surprise anyone. This was just the latest example of non-closure. In fact, some coach and player quotes sounded too much like Howland and the striker Garrison Brooks said four nights earlier after a loss at Arkansas.
That night, Brooks said “Eventually we have to figure it out.” Eventually has to wait a little longer now, and Wednesday Brooks remained optimistic. “But we will find out. We’ll find out.”
Such insurance is essential if Mississippi State (14-9, 5-5 SEC) wants to start winning again and stay in the NCAA tournament conversation. To be fair, it’s a very familiar position for a program that has held a place in that proverbial bubble for five seasons now. Mississippi State only slipped to the right side once as Howland’s 2019 team secured their offer, the state’s first in a full decade. And to be fair, the 2020 tournament was called off, just when these dogs were likely one SEC Tournament win — and certainly two wins — after securing an offer.
But missing at the end of the seasons has been too trendy. Now it’s a team that’s failing at the end of regular season games and keeping Bulldog basketball on the smooth side of that bubble. Losing to NCAA-bound Tennessee only cost the state six spots in the latest NET rankings…but that still leaves the Dogs in 56th place today. The Thefts are now #10.
Upcoming opponents LSU (#16) and Alabama (#22) provide opportunities for a true Quadrant 1 victory that State desperately needs now. The good news is that Arkansas’ hot streak pushed the Hogs to 31st and that will be counted against the Quad 1 balance as long as they stay there. At the same time, Arkansas is another contender for one of those “last” NCAA general offers, which epitomizes the dilemma of Mississippi State. The Bulldogs need their kills to win…but not to climb the leaderboards and rankings.
Speaking of which, State is still sixth on the SEC ladder, and that’s good given this league’s status as the top conference in the nation. At the same time, the Bulldogs need to win to stay in the top half or even improve. Losing four of the last six SEC games has cost any margin.
How they lost cost in other areas. In Florida, with the top Gator sidelined all night, State led 66-65 at five minutes and didn’t score again until 1:07 after falling 11 points behind. In Kentucky, the home team dominated the first half before the Bulldogs rallied from 15 points to force overtime. It was still a tie at 2:43 after a Iverson Molinar layup, but the Dogs failed to score and lost 82-74.
At Arkansas, the Dogs never led in the second half but rarely lost more than one or two possessions and it was a one-run game at 2:07. The home team won by eight.
Howland can point to all sorts of technical and tactical aspects. Molinar is a warrior, playing mostly at an American level, but also worn down and often literally battered by defensive attention. Having Tolu Smith the comeback has certainly helped but the center has only played ten games all season and a certain rhythm is missing between him and his teammates. Meanwhile, away shooting has become unreliable most nights, while the other dogs still seem uncertain of their own attacking roles.
Maybe that partly reflects the deliberate pace of play, to be kind. State took just 51 shots against Arkansas, but last night was even slower with just 44 official attempts. That’s all well and good, the Bulldogs are the second-best shooting team in the SEC. It’s not so encouraging to only rank seventh in points and 13th in total shots. State is also last in three-point attempts and not by a minor margin either.
So while Howland’s team can bump or just gag anyone and stay in games until the end, something is missing when times get tough. Not just shots, but clarity on what to do with basketball with the game on the line. Now having Molinar get the ball back last night in a must-have situation, down 68-63, was a good idea.
Having a tired guard trying to catch and shoot an incoming pass in traffic at 1:11? Only the coach and the club know if that was the call. All have seen the results, which have followed the frustrating suit of recent losses.
“We have to be tougher, we have to be able to finish,” Howland agreed last night. “That’s what good teams do. And that’s what we have to learn to do here. Learning that in the second half of the SEC season cuts it close, but time and games are still slipping on the right side of that bubble.
That means winning one of the next two games on the road and almost certainly sweeping the next four games with Missouri, twice, and South Carolina and Vanderbilt. These next six games will settle if Mississippi State starts dancing.
With that kind of pressure? No dog should need coffee to stay focused on that must-have stretch.