Making a basketball name for itself NCAA TOURNAMENT

March 23, 1995|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Writer

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Long before first- and second-round wins in this year's NCAA tournament pretty much put it on the map, way beyond those losing seasons, Mississippi State was a basketball power.

It happened in 1959, when a 24-1 Bulldogs team won the Southeastern Conference tournament and finished third in the national polls; and in 1961, when the team was 19-6; and again in 1962, when the team was co-champion of the SEC and wound up ranked fourth.

But, approaching the team's West Regional semifinal tonight against top seed UCLA, you'll find no recollection of those squads in any NCAA tournament book. Oh, they got invited. But that was Starkville, Miss., in an era of racial tension, and the politics of the day would not allow Mississippi State to play games against teams with black players.

Bye-bye, NCAAs.

"As a 17-year-old high school senior, I wasn't concerned about what was going on in the country," said Mississippi State coach Richard Williams, a 1967 graduate of the school who played for the Bulldogs. "I was concerned about having a date on Saturday night. I was concerned about passing a test.

"This is 1995. This is a different team and a different era," Williams, obviously uncomfortable in answering the questions, said. "These youngsters don't know about those times. They're at Mississippi State because they want to be there."

But those times are being rehashed because of just how good this Mississippi State team has become. A No. 5 seed, the Bulldogs (22-7) have the misfortune of playing in a football conference, and of also playing in a league where Arkansas and Kentucky reign as college basketball powers. The Bulldogs had never won an NCAA tournament game before beating Santa Clara and Utah last week in Boise, Idaho, which put them in the Sweet 16 and established their identity.

"You can con a con and, you can fool a fool, but you can't kid a kid," UCLA coach Jim Harrick said of the Bulldogs. "Mississippi State would be ranked a lot higher if they weren't in Starkville."

They are in Starkville, which is why the team's ascent has gone virtually unnoticed. But there have been some impressive teams victimized by the Bulldogs this season: Arkansas lost to them, Alabama lost to them. So did Kentucky.

"I don't think we've been given enough credit," said senior forward Marcus Grant, who averages 10.7 points for the Bulldogs. "We haven't gotten the recognition the other top teams have got. And we're a good team."

There would be no better way than to beat the Bruins, led by All-America forward Ed O'Bannon, who has rightly benefited from the media exposure he's received by playing in Los Angeles. The key to Mississippi State's chances is 6-foot-11 sophomore Erick Dampier, unknown outside of the league but an All-SEC player this season. Dampier had 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks in the second-round win over Utah.

"He's more challenged on some games than others," Williams said. "Coming out of high school, Erick didn't have great offensive skills. He's still not as offensive minded as I would like."

The heart of the team is 6-1 junior guard Darryl Wilson, who has played much of the season with stress fractures in both legs. That still hasn't stopped Wilson from averaging 17.7 points this season, and gaining a spot on the All-SEC second team.

The Bulldogs have won 12 of their past 15 games, and this is the third NCAA appearance in the school's 83-year history. The climate is a lot different from 1963, when school president Dr. D. W. Colvard said that Mississippi State's sixth-ranked team would play in the tournament against Loyola of Chicago, which had four black starters. When a senator filed an injunction to bar Mississippi State from playing, the team was sneaked out of town. They lost that first-round game to Loyola, a history that current players on the mostly black team were unaware of until last week.

"We didn't know," guard T. J. Honore said. "That has nothing to do with what's happening with us today. What happened in the '' early 1960s, we had no part of. This is a different team, a different day."

And a team that could firmly establish itself with a win tonight.

"When I came to Mississippi State, I was just happy to be playing for an SEC school," Grant said. "If we can get a win against the No. 1 team in the nation, it'll put us on the map, although people are now starting to recognize us."

No. 1 UCLA (27-2) vs. No. 5 Mississippi State (22-7)

What: NCAA West Regional semifinal

When: Tonight, 8:05

Where: Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.

TV:None

How they got here: UCLA defeated Florida International, 92-56, and Missouri, 75-74. Mississippi State defeated Santa Clara, 75-67, and Utah, 78-64.

Outlook: UCLA, the Pac-10 champions, needed a last-second lay-up by Tyus Edney to defeat Missouri, a game that may have served as a wake-up call for the Bruins. The Bruins will need to get their usual big game from senior All-America forward Ed O'Bannon (20.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and some help from 7-0 center George Zidek to beat Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have one of the most underrated players left in the tournament in 6-11 Erick Dampier, a sophomore who had 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks against Utah. The Bulldogs' fate also could depend on the ability of guards T. J. Honore (10.0 ppg) and Darryl Wilson (17.7 ppg) to hit from the perimeter and open up the middle. The Bulldogs were co-champs of the Southeastern Conference West division.

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