Mississippi State ready to defend home court in NCAA tourney

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Mississippi State's last appearance on its home court was a disaster.

Now the Bulldogs have at least one opportunity - two if things go as planned - to make things right.

No. 2 seed Mississippi State (29-4) hosts No. 15 Troy (22-10) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in the Starkville Regional on Friday. No. 7 DePaul (26-7) faces No. 10 Northern Iowa (24-8) in the regional's other game. The winners will play on Sunday with a trip to Sweet 16 on the line.

Mississippi State's last home game was a lopsided 82-64 loss to Tennessee on Feb. 26. The setback - which came in front of sold out crowd of 10,500 - cost the Bulldogs a share of the Southeastern Conference regular season title.

''There's a little bit of motivation to have some vindication,'' Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. ''Because as everyone knows we did not play well the last time we were in Humphrey Coliseum.''

Schaefer has needed just six seasons to build one of the Southeastern Conference's best programs. The Bulldogs won 27 games two years ago and 28 last year, advancing to the Sweet 16 before losing to UConn.

Now the veteran coach has arguably the best team he has had at Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs are led by junior guard Victoria Vivians, who is averaging 16.4 points per game, but have several other players, including guard Morgan William and center Teaira McCowan, who are capable of carrying the offense for a stretch.

DePaul figures to be the most likely team in Starkville that could spoil the Bulldogs' home court advantage.

The Blue Demons advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2011, 2014 and last season, beating the second round opponent on their home floor every time.

DePaul has dealt with plenty of adversity this season. The Blue Demons lost preseason Big East Player of the Year Jessica January for several weeks in the middle of the season because of a broken finger, but senior guard Brooke Schulte stepped into the void and averaged 20.8 points per game during conference play to be named the conference player of the year.

January returned in late February and had a triple-double in her second game back. She said she was proud of Schulte's emergence during her absence.

''She stepped up as a leader and has been the senior captain that she is,'' January said. ''I am very excited to be back playing with her.''

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Here are a few more things to watch from the Starkville Regional:

STREAKING DEPAUL: The Blue Demons are in the NCAA Tournament for a 15th straight season. Only five other programs can say the same: UConn, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Stanford and Tennessee. Coach Doug Bruno has been at DePaul 31 seasons and made the NCAA Tournament 22 times.

MCCOWAN'S BIGGER ROLE: The 6-foot-7 McCowan hasn't started a game this season, but the sophomore has become one of the team's most important players and was named the SEC's Sixth Woman of the Year. She's scored in double figures in 12 of her past 20 games, averaging nearly 10 points per game over that span. She's also had at least 10 rebounds in four of the past eight games.

LETTING IT FLY: The first round game between DePaul and Northern Iowa should have a lot of 3-pointers. The Blue Demons are fifth in the country with 960 3-point attempts while the Panthers are 11th with 832. DePaul's a little more efficient from deep, hitting 32.8 percent from beyond the arc. Northern Iowa's made 29.6 percent of its attempts.

RESPECT THE VALLEY: Northern Iowa had some nervous moments after losing to Drake in the finals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, but the Panthers' 24-win season was enough to earn the MVC's first at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2013.

TROY CAN SCORE: Troy - which won the Sun Belt Tournament title to advance to the NCAA Tournament - is scoring nearly 83 points per game, which ranks eighth in the country. The Trojans have scored at least 100 points four times this year, including a 105-72 win over Arkansas State in the Sun Belt Tournament opener.

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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