Mississippi State: This Year's Cinderella?

David HarrisCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2008

When looking across the spectrum of teams that qualified for the Big Dance this year, very few managed to have more than one first-team all-conference performer. Of the teams that did, many of the schools are familiar to the casual observer: Kansas, Tennessee, Connecticut, Indiana.

But another team managed to duplicate this feat and they're from a major conference. They've won 22 games this season. And yes, they have two first-team all-conference performers.

They are the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

And they may have a big say in this year's tournament.

Led by senior forward Charles Rhodes and junior point guard Jamont Gordon, the Bulldogs rebounded from a pedestrian 5-5 start to finish the season at 21-9. They split a couple of games in the SEC Tournament, which limited them to an eight seed and a potential second-round matchup with the formidable Memphis Tigers.

The Bulldogs are unlikely to be fazed by this development, however. The team tends to play to the level of its opposition.

While that has made for some gut-wrenching narrow escapes (and a few losses), it has also given Bulldog fans every reason to be confident that they can play with anyone in the nation.

Rhodes and Gordon are huge reasons why. The dynamic duo combined for over 34 points per game this season. Gordon is a 6-4, 230-pound specimen who creates plenty of mismatches for opposing point guards. He averaged nearly five assists and 6.3 rebounds to go along with his team-leading 17.3 points per game.

Rhodes, however, stepped into his senior leadership role and absolutely carried the team down the stretch. He comes in just behind Gordon at 16.7 points per game, while pulling down nearly eight rebounds per contest. He had nine double-doubles this season, giving the Bulldogs an impressive inside-outside combination.

Amazingly, neither of these players have grabbed as much national notoriety as the beast in the middle of the paint. Sophomore Jarvis Varnado is the nation's top shot-blocker at 4.6 per game. Three times this season, "Swat", as he has become known, rejected 10 shots in a single game.

He also recorded a triple-double against Kentucky earlier in the year, an accomplishment that landed him at the top of SportsCenter's 10 best plays. Varnado leads the team in rebounding as well.

While not as deep or as athletic as Memphis, State has the weapons and the defensive presence to rattle the Tigers. And if they can keep the game close, they can probably count on some missed Tigers free throws to help matters.

Obviously, nothing is guaranteed. State has a tough first-round matchup with Oregon. But their advantage down low should be enough to push them past the Ducks and into the regionally attractive matchup with Memphis.

Once there, anything can happen, and the Bulldogs have some fun pieces to their team that could give the Tigers more than they bargained for.