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Mississippi March: Some madness, some...

Mississippi March: Some madness, some mixed results and room to grow

By: Parrish Alford - March 19, 2024

Mississippi State head coach Chris Jans reacts on the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee at the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday, March 15, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • Parrish Alford offers the state of the state for Mississippi State, Ole Miss basketball.

March Madness is here, and for Mississippi, the state of the state is one of mixed results.

There is Madness for one team, Mississippi State, which did what it had to do in Nashville and a little bit more.

Chris Jans has a knack for finding his way to the NCAA Tournament and has now done it twice in two years with the Bulldogs.

This season it’s a small step forward as State, an 8 seed which will face 9 seed Michigan State in Charlotte, North Carolina Thursday morning at 11:15, avoided the First Four in Dayton.

A small detour here. The First Four is an exciting event that I enjoyed covering when Ole Miss rallied from way back to beat BYU there in 2015. It’s still a somewhat new event, and traditionalists have trouble considering it part of the NCAA Tournament. It is, but it’s not where you want to be.

If it wins, State will likely face West Region No. 1 seed North Carolina in the second round.

Chris Beard knows his way to the Big Dance too but didn’t make it there in his first season at Ole Miss.

Not that the Rebels didn’t have an NCAA feel for a time.

Both teams ended the regular season with the look that they had more in the tank.

State, a team with impressive home wins against Tennessee and Auburn, could be maddening on the road. Yes, road games are more difficult, but to compete for SEC championships and climb that seed line on Selection Sunday, you’ve got to find a way to pick off a few.

You certainly can’t be as Jekyll and Hyde as State sometimes was, getting blown out at Alabama and falling way behind in road losses at Auburn and Texas A&M late in the season.

The Bulldogs were also unable to get over the hump at The Hump in close losses against ranked teams Kentucky and South Carolina late in the year.

A little more maturity, and this team wouldn’t have had to sweat its trip to Nashville.

Late-blooming maturity

Once they arrived, maturity was on display when the Bulldogs forced 18 turnovers in a 70-60 win over LSU – the one that likely punched the NCAA ticket — and again with smothering defense in a second win over Tennessee, an NCAA 2 seed, holding the Vols to 20.5% shooting while bolting to a 38-19 halftime lead.

For Ole Miss, Beard got his team to respond better against Texas A&M, days after apologizing for their play in a near-30-point loss in the regular season finale at home.

Beard may have set some sort of record for getting a contract extension so soon after a loss of that magnitude, but Ole Miss announced the deal on the eve of the SEC Tournament.

Beard’s record  — with five NCAA trips in six seasons as a D1 coach prior to Ole Miss — speaks for itself. That body of work earns the respect of the extension even with the disappointing finish.

There’s trust that he can fix this.

For the first half of the year the Rebels looked like a potential March storyline. After an exciting home win against Mississippi State on Jan. 30 they looked like the team Beard inherited that won just four conference games last year.

Those who watched the Rebels last year didn’t expect a quick fix for Ole Miss basketball. Sometimes expectations change on the fly, and after wins against North Carolina State, Memphis, Florida, Texas A&M in College Station then State, it was time to reassess.

Beard lost the team at the end, and the Rebels went 2-9 in their last 11 games, both victories against SEC-winless Missouri.

Eager to start the fix

Eager to get started on the fix, Beard removed his team from consideration for an NIT bid.

The state of the state is strong but can get better.

The Bulldogs, 8-10 in the SEC regular season, did indeed take a small step forward, but with four-straight losses at the finish it looked like they’d stepped in something.

They’ve turned out to be this year’s “It ain’t over till it’s over” team, and their story is yet to be written.

Beard’s body of work deserves respect, but now he has to prove he can rebuild this Ole Miss team. He’s not at Texas. He needs more talented transfers in his next class – and a group that he can connect with for the course of the season.

Mississippi head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin looksat the overhead monitor for a replay of a foul called against her team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee in Oxford, Miss., Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The best story in the state of the state right now is the Ole Miss women.

Yolett McPhee-McCuin in 2018 inherited a program much worse off than did Beard last year.

She asked me once at an off-season fan rally, “Parrish, how long they going to give me?”

I’m supposed to predict the whims of a college administration?

After the Rebels went 3-29 in the SEC in her first two seasons – including 0-16 in Year 2 – there was predictable nervousness.

But there were two realities in play: One, McPhee-McCuin was the first responder to a train wreck. Any improvement would take time. Two, who would take the job? The program was not in a spot that the administration was about to sink a lot of cash into it.

Ole Miss AD Keith Carter, understanding both realities, has given McPhee-McCuin room to grow.

Saturday afternoon 7 seed Ole Miss faces 10 seed Marquette in South Bend, Indiana. The winner likely will face Notre Dame.

It’s the third-straight March Madness for Yo and her girls. They lost as a 7 seed in 2022 and reached the Sweet 16 last year.

The Rebels lost a generational player off their 2022 roster in Shakira Austin.

They lost Angel Baker (14.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.5 apg) off last year’s team.

Winning through transitioning rosters

Yet McPhee-McCuin has continued to crank out double-figure SEC regular season wins including 12-4 and a third-place finish this year. 

Think about it. In the SEC it was No. 1 South Carolina, the favorite for the national championship, LSU, last year’s national champ, then Ole Miss.

That’s impressive company.

Like the Bulldogs, this season’s Ole Miss women’s story is yet to be written.

But as the state of the state goes, it’s a pretty strong story right now.

About the Author(s)
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Parrish Alford

Parrish Alford brings the cumulative wisdom that comes from three decades of covering Mississippi sports to Magnolia Tribune. His outstanding contributions to sports reporting in the state have twice been recognized with Sports Writer of the Year awards. Alford currently serves as the associate editor of American Family News.