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 Starkville.
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 Tampa.
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 game.”
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. 16.
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.”