East Region: Liberty vs Mississippi State Prediction
Liberty vs Mississippi State Preview
The 5 vs 12 matchup is a popular upset pick–and we may have another one in this game between 12-seed Liberty (28-6) the champions of the ASUN, and 5-seed Mississippi State (23-10) who finished tied for sixth in the very competitive SEC.
This will be a game of polar opposites. Mississippi State has athletic players who are not afraid to shoot, where the Flames focus on the defensive end of the floor.
“They’re athletic as all get-out,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said of the Bulldogs in the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, Va.
“When you can rotate really three, four bigs in at the same time, and all can score and defend and have just incredible length, that poses some challenges for us. We don’t have that same size and weight.”
The Flames also don’t have someone like Mississippi State senior shooting guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, who averages 18.2 points per game and is one of the “athletic as all get-out” players, capable of finishing at the rim or shooting a three-ball (39.8 percent).
They do however, have a defensive philosophy molded after Tony Bennett and his Virginia squad.
McKay was Bennett’s associate head coach for six years at Virginia, and there is similar DNA between the programs. The Flames run the Bennett-style pack-line defense, which could make it difficult for Weatherspoon and other Bulldogs to get to the rim. They also adhere to a patient, deliberate style on offense intent on limiting possessions, especially against more-athletic teams.
Only four teams in the country have played at a slower tempo than Liberty, according to KenPom.com. Virginia is one of them.
“Liberty is going to be really tough,” said head coach Ben Howland, who is in his fourth season with the Bulldogs. “They’re going to be really, really sound on both ends of the floor.”
The Flames imposed their slow tempo in a 73-58 win at UCLA on Dec. 29, but they had trouble defensively against the two SEC teams on their schedule. Liberty kept things close — losing by nine each to Vanderbilt and Alabama — but those SEC schools feasted on free throws, combining to take 67 attempts.
“Those teams, we didn’t play at our pace; we played their game and didn’t take great shots, either,” Liberty junior point guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz said in the News & Advance. “This is a great opportunity for us to don’t do that again and do what we do every day.”
Liberty’s Scottie James was the MVP of the ASUN tournament after earning first-team all-conference honors. James, at 6-foot-8 the tallest player in the Flames’ starting lineup, is averaging 13.1 points and 8.7 rebounds, leading the team in both categories.
The Bulldogs have three players who stand at least 6-10 in their post rotation.
But Liberty figures if it doesn’t get sped up, it has a chance to pull off the upset.
“I think if we don’t turn the ball over and we play our game and play our pace, we will be great in that game,” Pacheco-Ortiz said. “We have to take care of the ball and make the right decisions.”
Mississippi State is playing in its first NCAA Tournament since 2009.
This is Liberty’s fourth all-time appearance in the tourney, the first since 2013 and its first as something other than a No. 16 seed.
LINE: -7 Mississippi State
Dan’s Bet: +7 Liberty
Bracket Pick: Mississippi State
Score Prediction: Mississippi State 66 Liberty 61
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