(4) Mississippi State (23-11) at (1) Baylor (19-14), 11 a.m. Sunday, ESPN
How they got here: Mississippi State and Baylor both received at-large bids into the NIT.
NIT Results: Mississippi State: def. Nebraska, 66-59; Baylor: def. Wagner, 80-59.
Expected starters and head coach
Mississippi State — G Lamar Peters (9.8 ppg, 4.3 apg), G Xavian Stapleton (6.2 ppg, 0.7 spg), Quinndary Weatherspoon (14.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg), G Tyson Carter (8.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg), F Abdul Ado (7.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Head coach — Ben Howland (454-250 overall, 53-44 at MSU).
Baylor — G Manu Lecomte (16.3 ppg, 3.6 apg), F Jo Lual-Acuil (13.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg), F Mark Vital (6.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg), F Nuni Omot (9.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg), G Jake Lindsey (4.6 ppg, 3.3. apg). Head coach — Scott Drew (316-205 overall, 296-194 at Baylor).
About Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are making their ninth appearance in the NIT and their first since 2012 when it lost to UMass, 101-96, in the first round. Mississippi State made it to New York City for the NIT Final Four in 2007 before losing in the semifinals to West Virginia. In the Bulldogs’ NIT opener it was a bench player, Aric Holman, who led the way with 16 points and 10 rebounds. The 6-foot-10 junior forward is No. 7 all-time in blocked shots at MSU with 137. It’s not unusual for Holman to be a big part of the team. He was a full-time starter until the SEC Tournament and averaged 10.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game this season. The Bulldogs are a guard-driven team in the starting lineup, with four guards in the starting lineup. The Weatherspoon brothers, Quinndary and Nick, average a combined 25.7 points per game this season and are the Bulldogs’ top two scorers. Nick, a freshman, had started all season before missing the Nebraska game after suffering a concussion and a hip bone contusion in the SEC Tournament. Don’t underestimate MSU’s coaching either. Howland took UCLA to three straight Final Fours in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
About Baylor: Baylor is now 10-4 in the NIT after their opening win over Wagner. The Bears struggled early in the game before guard Manu Lecomte caught fire and ended up scoring a game-high 24 points. But, by the time the contest was over four other Bears were in double figures, including Terry Maston, who moved back into his bench role and scored 13 points. The move made way for Mark Vital to return to the starting lineup, and while Vital only scored 3 points he and Maston combined for 14 rebounds (Maston had 8 and Vital had 6). Baylor has two injuries to deal with after the NIT win, as Lindsey suffered a hip injury and freshman forward Tristan Clark injured his foot. Drew told reporters on Friday that both would play as long as the injuries were not too serious. Baylor is playing its sixth home game in NIT history and has won the previous five.
Prediction: Baylor and Mississippi State don’t have much experience with each other. The Bears and Bulldogs have met three times all-time and MSU owns a 2-1 record. But they’ve never met in Waco, and given the Bears’ NIT homecourt advantage historically, that should work well for Baylor. I think Baylor shook off the cobwebs of nearly a week off after the Big 12 Tournament in the first half against Wagner and should be sharper. But, like the Wagner game, this is a game of contrasts as the Bears boast a long, athletic front line and the Bulldogs start three players 6-foot-4 or shorter. The difference is that MSU has enough height inside, between Ado and Holman, to be competitive with the Bears inside. Baylor needs Lindsey to play, if for no other reason not to wear out Lecomte, its best 3-point shooter. I think Baylor will win again, but this one should be a much closer contest than the one Baylor experienced against Wagner.
Next up: The winner faces either Middle Tennessee or Louisville in the third round either March 20 or 21.