Putting a cap on Mississippi State can be a difficult thing

March 25, 1996|By John Eisenberg

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The game was over, the Mississippi State Bulldogs had won and a marketing guy from the NCAA hustled onto the court and gave the players commemorative Final Four caps to wear on TV.

The caps were a cool gray, with the school mascot pictured on the front and the school name written on the back.

Nice caps. Expensive caps. Only problem was, the NCAA had the wrong school name written on the back.

Mississippi.

"They forgot to write 'State,' " said Bulldogs forward Russell Walters, studying his cap and wearing a wry smile in the locker room. "I guess it's a typo."

A typo. The perfect allegory for one of the unlikeliest Final Four qualifiers in recent memory.

The Bulldogs are a pretty good team, but they're from nowhere on the college basketball map.

They're from a state that has never sent any team from any school to the Final Four until now.

They're from Starkville, Miss., which isn't exactly "heaven is a playground" territory.

"A lot of people in Mississippi aren't even exposed to basketball," Walters said. "Football is the big sport there. We're trying to change that."

If they don't, it won't be for a lack of effort.

The Bulldogs were far better than favored Cincinnati yesterday in the NCAA Southeast Regional final at Rupp Arena. They scored 20 of the game's first 30 points to subdue the pro-Cincy crowd, then protected their lead with their trademark man-to-man defense.

They have now beaten three of the nation's top seven teams (Kentucky, Connecticut and Cincinnati) in the past three weeks, and they'll probably beat Syracuse in the national semifinals Saturday at the Meadowlands, landing them a place in the championship game.

"If they keep playing like this, they can beat anyone," Cincy coach Bob Huggins said.

Just think, Ole Miss, of all teams, in the national title game!

Sorry, make that Mississippi State.

"I think it's great that people don't know who we are," guard Marcus Bullard said. "We use it as motivation, as you might expect."

Who are they? Time to find out, isn't it?

Their coach, Richard Williams, is a 50-year-old State grad who taught math for 17 years as he worked his way through the junior high, high school and junior college ranks. Ten of his 13 players are native Mississippians.

Their leading scorer, forward Dontae Jones, dropped out of high school and spent three years cutting up chickens at Kenny Rogers Roasters. An AAU coach discovered him playing in a midnight basketball league in Nashville, Tenn.

"I admit it, I was looking at the street life," Jones said yesterday.

He got his high school equivalency degree and went to a junior college before coming to State. Yesterday, he scored 15 points in the first 7 1/2 minutes and was voted the regional's Most Outstanding Player.

"This is special for everyone," he said, "but maybe a little bit more for me, considering the adversity I've overcome."

Big man Erick Dampier didn't come from that far down, but he was overshadowed in high school by Georgetown's Othella Harrington, another Mississippian.

Walters, the Dennis Rodman-like power forward (one point and 10 rebounds yesterday), writes country songs in the off-season.

The sixth man is named Slim Whitman.

Oops, sorry, that name is Whit Hughes.

Tradition? The Bulldogs couldn't begin to match Cincinnati on that front yesterday.

Cincy has won two national titles and reached six Final Fours. Mr. Bearcat himself, Oscar Robertson, was in the house.

State's best player ever is Bailey Howell, who went on to play on two NBA championship teams with the Boston Celtics in the '60s.

If he was in the house yesterday, no one knew.

Actually, Howell is considered the co-best player in school history along with Jeff Malone, the guard who played for the Bullets.

That will about do it for great names in Mississippi State basketball history.

As for victories, the Bulldogs had a run of success in the late '50s and early '60s, winning four Southeastern Conference titles before integration. Shamefully, they turned down all but one NCAA bid because they didn't want to play integrated teams.

Since then, they haven't done moo. This is their first trip beyond the Sweet 16.

"To be honest, the state of Mississippi hasn't had a lot to be proud of as far as sports go," Walters said. "The teams haven't accomplished a lot. As a native, I'm incredibly proud to be part of the first Final Four team from the state. I'll have that until I die."

Williams, the coach, has ridden the "no respect" theme hard during the tournament, complaining about it repeatedly as his team advanced.

The Lexington paper referred to him as "an irritable sort of guy" yesterday. Obviously chastened, he tried to spin things a little lighter after the big win.

"If sometimes we come across as whiny and irritable, sometimes we have a reason to be," he said.

He held up one of the commemorative caps with "Mississippi" written across the back.

It spoke for him.

Pub Date: 3/25/96

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