These ’Dogs are unranked, unappreciated and unloved

Published: Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 29, 2008 at 10:21 p.m.

Any other year, think how loud the buzz would be.

You have a team that has won 10 conference games with three to go, a team that could move into a tie for the top of the SEC this weekend. You have a team that can go after you outside or inside, that has a player of the year candidate, that has one of the best shot-blockers the SEC has ever seen.

Easy to love, these guys are.

So where is it?

The love, I mean. Where is the love for the team that comes into the O'Connell Center today with nine wins in its last 12 games and the only winning record of any Western Division team against the East?

“They can score at all five spots,” said Auburn coach Jeff Lebo. “Their starting five is as good or better than anyone's in the league.”

But Mississippi State is considered a team sliding through the back door of the Big Dance even though it has already clinched a tie for the West title, even though it has won 19 games.

I look at the Bulldogs and I see a team that might surprise a lot of people in the NCAA Tournament and a team that could easily reach the final of the SEC Tournament in Atlanta.

Everyone else looks at Mississippi State and sees, well, I'm not sure what they see.

Unranked, unappreciated and unloved.

“It's amazing, isn't it?” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “It's puzzling. You look at their players. Charles Rhodes is healthy now and he's tough inside. Jarvis Varnado is one of the best if not the best shot-blocker in the country. Jamont Gordon, if he were at Duke or Kentucky, we'd be salivating over him.

“I agree that Mississippi State should be getting more attention.”

But it's not happening.

Certainly in Gainesville today at 4 p.m. the Bulldogs will be on the minds of Florida's faithful. But this is still a team that barely registers a blip on the national radar.

The latest ESPN Bracketology has the Bulldogs in as an eight seed. But with games at Florida and Vanderbilt, Rick Stansbury's team has the opportunity to pad its resume and move up in the seeding. Gee, maybe someone will even notice what's going on in Starkville.

“I don't pay attention to all that,” Stansbury said. “You gotta go out and win ball games.”

Sometimes that isn't even enough.

There are reasons why Florida's opponent today has made it through this season with great stealth.

The pre-conference record is one of them. MSU went 5-5 to start the season losing to South Alabama and Miami of Ohio. The Bulldogs' strength of schedule is 59th compared to UF's 113th.

“It's simple really and most people miss the point,” Stansbury said. “It wasn't just that we had only two starters returning. We went from a four-guard offense to a totally different offense without as much spacing. We went with two big guys and that meant there wouldn't be as many 3-point shots.

“I overscheduled considering the newness of our basketball team. But it made us better.”

It's funny to hear Stansbury, who has been hammered for going soft in his pre-conference scheduling, talk about how difficult this year's schedule has been. The 5-5 start is one thing, but it seems like every time Mississippi State starts to make some noise, it gives everyone a reason to hush up.

After a 5-0 start that included a win over Kentucky, the Bulldogs lost two in a row. After three more wins, there was a numbing loss to Ole Miss.

Rival? Sure. Quality loss? No way.

Then Mississippi State needs a miracle to beat South Carolina in overtime.

So I guess the real question is this — just how good is this team?

Good enough to get some attention nationally? Good enough to be a tournament darling?

Or just the product of a weak conference and an even weaker division?

I guess we'll get part of the answer this afternoon.

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