Mississippi State is riding the NCAA Tournament bubble heading into the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn.
The Bulldogs (20-11) are the No. 9 seed and covet a win over No. 8 seed Florida (16-15) on Thursday afternoon to set up a date with conference champion Alabama on Friday.
Mississippi State is among teams being considered as the last four in the tournament, according to ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi. Under first-year coach Chris Jans, the Bulldogs posted big wins in the non-conference portion of the schedule, which included upsets of No. 6 Marquette and No. 22 TCU.
“I don’t think anybody, other than a few of us, would have dreamt five or six weeks ago that we’d be in the position that we’re in,” Jans said. “We’ve been playing meaningful games for weeks, and that’s fun. That’s fun to be a part of. It’s very stressful, obviously.There’s a lot riding on these games.”
The Bulldogs went 0-2 against Alabama this season, but a 66-63 loss in their Jan. 25 meeting went down to the wire.
Mississippi State’s smothering defense ranks second in the SEC in scoring (60.4 points per game allowed) and second in steals with 8.9. On offense, the Bulldogs pound the ball inside to forward Tolu Smith, who ranks eighth in the SEC in scoring at 15.4 points per game and earned first-team, All-SEC honors this week.
The game will be a rematch of a Jan. 21 meeting that went down to the wire, with Florida beating Mississippi State 61-59 in Starkville, Miss.
Florida might need a miracle to extend its season.
The Gators take a two-game win streak into the game, but have gone 2-3 since All-SEC first team center Colin Castleton went down with a broken thumb on Feb. 15 against Ole Miss.
“When you lose Colin, who was the focal point really on both ends of the floor, now 2 through 13, everybody’s job changes because everybody has to step up and take on more responsibility,” Florida coach Todd Golden said. “It took us a little bit to get comfortable with that.”
Riley Kugel has emerged in Castleton’s absence as the Gators’ go-to scorer. Kugel has scored in double figures in eight consecutive games, the longest streak for a Florida freshman since Bradley Beal scored in double figures in 10 straight games during the 2011-12 season.
The Gators would need to win four straight games and win the SEC Tournament to secure an automatic bid for an NCAA Tournament berth. Otherwise, the Gators are likely headed to the NIT.
“We could definitely make a run in this tournament,” Kugel said. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t have any doubts of not winning this.”
Alabama and Florida met once this season, a 28-point Crimson Tide win on Feb. 8.
–Field Level Media