Eyeing NCAA Tournament, Mississippi State opens with North Alabama

NCAA Men

The Mississippi State men’s basketball team didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last season.

But the Bulldogs did make the NIT and got all the way to New York before losing to Memphis in the championship.

So the next step this season would be for MSU, which hosts North Alabama in its season opener Wednesday night, to get to the NCAA Tournament.

“That’s what our No. 1 goal is,” coach Ben Howland said. “I think our team definitely has the opportunity to do that.”

Guard Iverson Molinar is a preseason All-SEC first-team pick after finishing sixth in scoring (16.6 points per game) in the conference last season.

Another key returning player is Tolu Smith, who led the SEC in rebounds per game (8.6) and double-doubles (eight) last season. Smith has been limited by injury during the preseason.

“We’re blocking out all of the outside noise,” Molinar said. “We’re just focusing on us, how we can get better and how to bring all the talent together by building good chemistry. I feel like we’ve been doing well with that.”

The Bulldogs, who begin the season with a four-game homestand, have four significant transfers — Garrison Brooks (North Carolina), D.J. Jeffries (Memphis), Rocket Watts (Michigan State) and Shakeel Moore (North Carolina State).

MSU finished 18-15 overall and 8-10 in the SEC last season.

North Alabama, which was 13-11 overall and 7-8 in the Atlantic Sun last season, is entering the final season of its four-season transition to Division I. The former Division II powerhouse won’t be eligible for the NCAA Tournament until next season.

The Lions return six lettermen from the team that was runner-up in the ASUN conference tournament last season. They lost to Liberty 79-75 in the conference tournament championship game.

They lost leading scorer Mervin James, but Jamari Blackmon and Payton Youngblood are both back after each averaged 10.1 points per game last season. Blackmon led the Lions with 53 assists, and Emanuel Littles led the team with an average of 9.9 rebounds per game.

–Field Level Media

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