NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Rick Stansbury was parked outside the Mississippi State locker room, waiting for the first person to ask the question that makes his eyes a little wild: "Yes, your team just popped Vanderbilt, 62-52, in the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament semifinals. But don't your guys still have to beat Kentucky Sunday to return to the NCAA Tournament?"
Sure enough, somebody asked him. Several times, in fact. One time Stansbury told the writer who asked the question that he would wait to read the writer's opinion.
"If you're as smart as I think you are, I know what article I'll read tomorrow," Stansbury said. "That's all I will say. How's that?"
Another time Stansbury answered the question with his question: "Why aren't we already in?" he said. "You tell me that."
OK, your team started Saturday with an RPI of 63. The win against Vanderbilt was your first against a Top 25 team this season. Your strength of schedule wouldn't rank in the top three-quarters of the Big East.
A good chunk of bracket projections still suggest you'd better beat Kentucky because you're missing from their 65-team fields. Several of your players said beating Kentucky was essential to maintaining the drumbeat of this season.
"The attitude I'm trying to take right now is we have to win (against Kentucky) to get in the tournament," said guard Phil Turner, after scoring 11 against Vanderbilt.
Mississippi State has come to the SEC Tournament and played the way the Bulldogs played at the SEC Tournament last season. A year ago the Bulldogs went to Tampa seeded fourth. There was no debate or even discussion that they were an NCAA team.
Then the Bulldogs beat Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana State and Tennessee and earned the automatic qualifier and a 13-seed.
This season was supposed to be different. Nobody had a better shot-blocker than Jarvis Varnado. Not many teams had a more prolific freshman inside prospect than Renardo Sidney. Few teams had a better pair of three-point shooters than Barry Stewart and Ravern Johnson.
No shocker that the Bulldogs started the season ranked 18th in the Associated Press poll and 19th in the USA Today coaches' poll
Then MSU lost its opening game to Rider. By 14 points. In Starkville. Sidney never saw the court because of NCAA eligibility issues. Add in assorted injuries, suspensions and the twists and turns of your basic college basketball season, and Mississippi State was positioned with Michigan, Washington and others on the Underachievers List.
Sure the Bulldogs won the SEC West, but like every other team in that division they failed to win a game against Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida and Vanderbilt, the top four teams in the SEC East.
Their best victory was against ... Old Dominion?
"We never got in a good rhythm," Johnson said.
They've been in a wonderful rhythm, offensively and defensively, the last two days. They pinned a 75-69 defeat on Florida Friday. With Varnado swatting six shots, Vandy shot less than 35 percent and scored the fewest points the Commodores have scored this season.
They only turned the ball over nine times and pushed ahead of Vanderbilt by as many as 15 points in the second half.
"I think everybody is in a good rhythm," Johnson said. "Barry, he can't really miss. As long as we've got him shooting, I knock down shots and everybody else is just playing real good, I don't think anybody can beat us."
Anybody obviously includes Kentucky, which thumped Tennessee, 74-45, in the first semifinal. These two have a history. Kentucky defeated the Bulldogs, 81-75, in Starkville on Feb. 16. The Wildcats required an overtime to do it.
Kentucky remembers it as the game that included the backdrop of Mississippi State students flooding DeMarcus Cousins' cellular phone with calls and text messages. A bottle or two flew out of the stands after the game.
Mississippi State remembers it as a game that ended with the curious statistic that the last 10 fouls whistled in that game were all whistled against the Bulldogs.
Should be a fun rematch, right?
"We knew Kentucky was going to get to the championship game," Johnson said. "This is the team we wanted to play."
"Our guys understand Kentucky is the best team in the country," Stansbury said. "On a neutral court, I'll promise you this:
"Our kids will be very confident. We won't play afraid. We'll come out and fight, and fight the best we can. Will the best we can be good enough to beat them? We'll just wait and see."