Can this year's Mississippi State Bulldogs capture lightning in a bottle like the 1995-96 team? Before the start of the 2010 men's basketball season, MSU emerged as the trendy choice to win the SEC West division. Expectations are high in Starkville this season, and thoughts of a deep run in the NCAA Basketball Tournament surround the team.
Last season the Bulldogs tied for first in the SEC West Division. Snubbed by the NCAA Tournament, they played in the 2010 National Invitation Tournament where they advanced to the second round before North Carolina defeated them.
Like this year, the '95-'96 team entered the season highly regarded and ranked ninth in the country. The previous year's team had reached the Sweet Sixteen before losing to eventual champion UCLA.
The preseason had its share of controversy and hype. Before playing for MSU in the '90s, small forward Dontae' Jones underwent scrutiny from the NCAA after he passed 36 course hours over the summer to become eligible for MSU. Jones completed 21 hours at Northeast Junior College and 15 hours in correspondence courses from Southern Mississippi. The NCAA has since enacted a rule that places limitations on the number of summer-school hours a student-athlete can use for eligibility purposes—coaches know it as the "Dontae' Jones rule."
With Jones eligible to play, MSU coach Richard Williams was able to place a talented trio of players on the floor. Joining Jones was shooting guard Daryl Wilson, a deadeye shooter, and center Erick Dampier, a defensive force in the middle.
Rounding out the starting five was strong forward Russell Walters and point guard Marcus Bullard. Coming off the bench to contribute were Bart Hyche, Whit Hughes and Tyrone Washington.
MSU tore through their out-of-conference schedule going 8-1 with the lone loss coming via Arkansas Little Rock, which is nearly unexplainable. Things would get tougher for the Bulldogs entering conference play.
Mississippi State would start SEC play losing four of their first seven. The heavy favorites were 3-4 in league play and plagued by turnovers. The Bulldogs would quickly right the ship with five straight victories before splitting their final four games. The team finished with a 10-6 SEC record to win the SEC West Division.
MSU crushed Auburn and Georgia to reach the SEC Championship game against Kentucky. In a shocking upset, the Bulldogs defeated the eventual national champions, a team that featured nine future NBA players. MSU was given the fifth seed in the Southeast Region.
In their opening game, the Bulldogs struggled against Virginia Commonwealth but survived. In the second round, MSU crushed Ivy League champions Princeton. What happened next would become part of Mississippi sports lore.
In the Sweet Sixteen, MSU faced the Connecticut Huskies, the number-one seed in the Southeast Region, led by future NBA star and, possibly, future hall-of-famer Ray Allen. Even then, Allen had a reputation for his shooting touch and nearly flawless marksmanship. In an instant classic, UConn's Allen and MSU's Wilson went toe-to-toe in a shootout.
Wilson hit big shots late to lead MSU to a 60-55 win and a date with Cincinnati in the regional final. The Bulldogs handled the Elite Eight Bearcats with ease, winning 73-63 to earn the school's first and only final-four berth, where MSU's dream season would die against Syracuse.
The next season, the Bulldogs lost all five starters and came crashing back to earth. Just two years after that final four, MSU went 12-18 overall and 6-10 in the SEC in 1996-97, and 15-15 overall and 4-12 in the SEC in 1997-98. Williams was forced out and replaced with his assistant, Rich Stansbury.
Not until the 2001-02 season did the Mississippi State Bulldogs reach the NCAA Tournament again; they have yet to make it past the first weekend since 1996.
Where Are They Now?
Richard Williams bounced around after leaving MSU, even coaching at Pearl High School at one point. Today Williams is an assistant coach at Arkansas State.
Erick Dampier was a lottery pick by the Indiana Pacers in 1996. The man in the middle for Mississippi State played for four teams in the NBA. These days Dampier took his talents to South Beach to join LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
The New York Knicks drafted Dontae' Jones in 1996, trading him to the Boston Celtics a year later. Jones would go on to play in Europe, Mexico and the United States. Currently, Jones is playing with Mexico's Halcones UV Xalapa.
Darryl Wilson never got a shot at the NBA but he played professionally in Israel and Italy. The former MSU guard was last seen playing for the Tupelo Rock-n-Rollers.
I worked in Jackson at Blue Cross of Mississippi from 2002 through 2004 while retaining my residence in Jacksonville, FL. While I am steadfastly loyal to the Florida Gators I am very impressed with MSU's trip to the Gator Bowl. We hope to see the Western Bulldogs (the UGA Dawgs are just north of here) skillfully handle the Big Blue group from Michigan tomorrow.
Happy New Year! Mississippi State 24 Michigan 13