While I'm going to give it a go all the same, I'll have to admit that it pains me to write this. Despite the fact that this season has mostly been a joy to behold, it's been tough to suffer through these late-season losses. This one probably hurts the most. We were in a position to win at the half and things were looking like we would finally come through with the huge, NCAAs-clinching win we needed. It didn't happen, though. In the end, Mississippi State defeated South Carolina 82-68. Barry Stewart led State with 21 points and Zam Fredrick led USC with 20. Devan Downey was held in check with only 11 points. Congrats go to the Bulldogs, who played incredibly well in all facets of the game in the second half and were clutch from the free throw line in the final minutes.
A couple of points bear noticing in how this game went down. First of all, State did a great job defending Downey. Dee Bost played him tough on the ball and as a team I thought State did a good job of keeping Downey out of the lane, where Downey is most dangerous. Downey finished with 11 points on 5/20 shooting (!!!) and only had three assists. The truth is that down the stretch our opponents have learned how to contain Downey; that's what happened against Tennessee, and that's what happened yesterday. This wouldn't be such a problem if other players could step up and fill his shoes, but, unfortunately, that hasn't happened. This isn't to say that the rest of our team is chopped liver on offense--Zam and Dominique Archie played well yesterday, for instance--but it's painfully obvious that we're not the same team offensively when Downey isn't controlling the flow of the game.
I'll have more to say about what I think this team needs to do to improve next year after the season is over, but suffice it to say that numero uno is that we can't simply rely on Downey to do everything in the half-court game. When our half-court offense has worked this year, it has basically involved Downey beating a guy off the dribble and either scoring on short jumpers or layups or dishing to a big guy or open three-point shooter after the defense collapses on him in the lane. When the half-court offense has failed, it's failed because opposing defenses have kept Downey from doing this and we haven't had any other options. No one else can really create consistently for us, and we consequently have trouble getting open looks. We have to work on our general efficiency running offensive plays and returning players like Archie have to elevate their games so that we aren't lost when Downey is being kept in check. That's what will change this team from a capable offensive team to a juggernaut.
The second point to recognize about this game is that State had an offensive performance for the ages in the second half. At times I thought we could have defended the perimeter better, but honestly, they really shot the lights out. They made several of their threes with hands in their faces. Stewart, especially, was a force from outside, shooting 4-6 from downtown. This is the kind of game State likes to play, and when they're doing it well, they're hard to beat unless you can keep pace with them offensively. We didn't do that, and we predictably lost.
As I said yesterday, I think we're NIT-bound. I think we have a SLIGHT chance of making it to the NCAAs, mainly because I suspect the tournament committee will give the SEC more bids than the biased, Kentucky-focused national media thinks the conference deserves. However, even if the committee throws the SEC a third or fourth bid, I doubt we'll be the one that gets it. Auburn deserves it more than us, especially if they beat the Vols again tonight. State, moreover, just made their statement with a win against LSU. And if Auburn wins, that'll set up a State-Auburn title game, meaning that one of them will certainly get one of the SEC bids. And honestly, even if one of them doesn't win the auto-bid, do any of us really think we deserve it more than the Bulldogs or Tigers? I hate to say it, but I don't. Those two teams are just better than us right now, so we probably shouldn't expect to get any love from the committee just because they want to be nice to the SEC; any such gifts will go to Auburn or State.
All of that said, I still think we all know deep down inside that this season has been a success. I'll have more to say about the season as a whole after it's over, but we have surpassed expectations this year. We were projected to be fifth in the East and lucky to make it to the NIT; instead we shared the divionsal title and ended up squarely on the bubble. And if we do go to the NIT, we need to support this team. Most of them will be back next year, and they need to feel like a good post-season showing is the first step to a big 2009-2010.