Rick Stansbury's Mississippi State Bulldogs have to go through No. 2 Kentucky on Sunday.
They had to win four games in four days a year ago to get into the NCAA tournament.
This time, all they have to do is win three games in three days. Never mind that it’s No. 2-ranked Kentucky that stands in their way Sunday in the SEC championship game.
“They’re one of the best teams in the country, and when they came to our place, we had them. But it slipped out of our hands,” Mississippi State senior forward Jarvis Varnado said. “We want this rematch, and we’ll be up for it.”
The Bulldogs (23-10) suffered a bitter 81-75 loss to the Wildcats in overtime on Feb. 16. Not that anybody in Starkville needs a refresher, but the last 10 fouls in that game went against the Bulldogs.
And that’s not to mention an obvious goal-tend that wasn’t called against Kentucky’s John Wall in overtime after he slapped away Dee Bost’s layup attempt.
If just one of those calls goes the Bulldogs’ way, maybe they’re not in this position right now. They’d probably already be in the NCAA tournament with the strength of a win over Kentucky under their belts.
But Stansbury deals in reality, and the reality is that the Bulldogs need to win their second straight SEC tournament championship to be assured of their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
He’s not going to consume himself with whether or not the Bulldogs are the “first team out” or the “first team in.”
The only bubble he’s worried about is bursting Kentucky’s bubble.
“I think it’s obvious our kids -- we haven’t worried about [the NCAA tournament talk],” Stansbury said. “They’ve worried about the things that they’ve got to worry about. That’s what happens between the lines. That’s the only thing we’re in charge of.”
Still, it’s impossible not to notice all the different projections out there. About an hour after Mississippi State polished off Vanderbilt 62-52 in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi published his latest Bubble Watch, and it had Mississippi State as the last team in.
“If we win enough games, that’s going to take care of itself,” Stansbury said.
Varnado, who's blocked 10 shots in the last two games, did a lot of watching the last time Mississippi State faced Kentucky. He picked up his third and fourth fouls in a five-second span early in the second half and only played 23 minutes in the game. The Bulldogs were also without one of their top scorers, Ravern Johnson, who was suspended for the game.
"The last game, we had them," said Bost, referring to the 67-60 lead Mississippi State lost in the final three minutes of regulation. "So we know what we've got to do to win."