Mississippi teams await their fate

Published 12:09 am Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Southern Miss Golden Eagles will gather in a Hattiesburg restaurant this afternoon, with the eyes of the college basketball world upon them as they wait to find out if their 21-year NCAA Tournament drought is over.

It’s a spot they don’t think they belong in.

Southern Miss is one of several teams on the NCAA Tournament “bubble,” those who are in contention for one of the precious few at-large bids in the field of 68. It has a strong case based on its 25-8 record and top-20 ranking in the last Ratings Percentage Index standings.

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USM lost in the Conference USA Tournament semifinals to Marshall, however, and went 5-5 in its last 10 games. The late-season slide took the Golden Eagles from a surefire tournament contender to having to make their case — something coach Larry Eustachy vehemently did after Friday’s loss to Marshall.

“People who say we are not in the tournament, are idiots. They are idiots,” Eustachy said in his postgame press conference. “They obviously aren’t going by what the NCAA is going by. The criteria is based off of RPI and strength of schedule. You are not allowed to factor anything else in. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it. See what you come up with.”

While the Golden Eagles wait to hear if their name is announced on selection Sunday for the first time since 1991, they’ll get plenty of attention. CBS, which announces the NCAA Tournament brackets, will have cameras stationed at Mugshots restaurant in Hattiesburg, where the team will watch the selection show.

After Friday’s loss, the team seemed confident it was a matter of when, not if, they’re picked.

“I am just excited to know that we made it. It was a big accomplishment for the school,” guard Darnell Dodson said. “For this team, we just know that we have earned it because we have been working hard, all year.”

Southern Miss isn’t the only team from the Magnolia State that’s on the bubble. Mississippi State and Ole Miss will also watch and wait to see whether they’re going to the NCAA’s big dance, or one of the smaller ones like the National Invitational Tournament or College Basketball Invitational.

Mississippi State, like USM, seemed like it was cruising toward an easy NCAA bid. Then the Bulldogs lost five consecutive games and six of their last eight, were upset by Georgia in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Thursday night, and suddenly found themselves on the edge of the field.

Mississippi State (21-12) was ranked 71st in the RPI heading into the SEC Tournament, a slot that surely dropped with the loss to Georgia (16-18). The Bulldogs’ standing was also hurt by several upsets in other conference tournaments. Each highly-ranked favorite that loses gobbles up one of the 34 at-large bids and knocks the bubble teams down another peg.

MSU coach Rick Stansbury, however, felt the team did enough early in the season to offset its recent struggles. The Bulldogs beat fellow bubble teams Arizona and West Virginia during non-conference play, and lost close games to No. 12 Baylor and top-ranked Kentucky.

“The 31, 32 games where we played now, people can evaluate us and what we have done, and not on just a one-game stretch here,” Stansbury said in his postgame press conference following the tournament loss to Georgia. “Remember in those five games, we were without a starter in two and a half of those games. In that stretch, in two of those games were overtime losses, so I don’t think we lost any mojo or anything like that.”

Like Mississippi State and Southern Miss, Ole Miss struggled in February and landed among the bubble teams. Unlike their in-state rivals, the Rebels might have played their way back into the discussion.

Ole Miss won five of its last six games before losing in the SEC Tournament semifinals against Vanderbilt on Saturday, and finished with a 20-13 record. Now the Rebels will wait, just like everyone else, to see whether it was enough to join the party for March Madness. Unlike the other Mississippi teams, however, they seemed resigned to their fate if they’re not invited.

“Man, me, I think like it’s up to the committee now. I think that we let this one slip, so it’s up to them, not us anymore,” Ole Miss center Murphy Holloway said after the loss to Vanderbilt.


5 p.m. CBS

NCAA Tournament

selection show