NEW YORK - Mississippi State may have been numb on the outside after its last-second loss to West Virginia on Tuesday, but the look in the players' eyes revealed excruciating pain inside.

Yes, the Bulldogs let one get away. The big catch broke free just in the nick of time, while the fishermen now find themselves home empty-handed.

Well, empty-handed in the sense that a championship wasn't claimed.

However, time will eventually heal the repairable wound, and when it does, MSU will see there's no need for any head hanging.

It's called the big picture.

And what this particular rendition shows is a future filled with promise.

Despite a starting lineup that featured three sophomores and a junior and three freshmen serving as the top reserves, the Bulldogs won 21 games.

They also expanded an already impressive trophy case with more hardware as State claimed a Western Division crown. As for the premature talk the SEC was experiencing a down year, I think we've all seen there's little validation in that theory based on how the league has fared in the NCAA and NIT tournaments.

And considering the talent returning, coupled with the incoming freshmen class, you have to think MSU is one of the favorites to win the division next season.

"I can see this loss as a good thing," said Barry Stewart, a freshman All-SEC selection. "There needs to be some pain. It will motivate us for next year. We will learn from this loss, and I only see us getting better."

You'd have to be blind to think otherwise.

I mean, just look at where this team finished as opposed to where it started.

Remember all the close games that were lost? Remember the tough going Jamont Gordon had in December and early January, or the 2-5 start in SEC play?

Some even questioned Gordon's ability.

Funny how that evaluation seems silly now.

He is one of the premiere players in the conference, and any coach will tell you he's the hardest to prepare for.

Mainly because he's so versatile. He can drive inside, run the offense from the point, shoot the 3 or connect on the short pull-up jumper.

And yes. He can still improve.

So can Charles Rhodes. In all likelihood, he'll be back for his senior season. Simply put, he's not ready for the pros.

There's still another level his game can reach on both ends of the court, and when he finds it, look out.

The same goes for the Delk twins. The only component lacking for them is consistency.

As for Ben Hansbrough, Jarvis Varnado and Stewart, they could start for most teams. One will find their way into the lineup next year, while the other two will log as many minutes.

And if Vernon Goodridge and Bernard Rimmer live up to the expatiations the coaching staff knows exists, then the Bulldogs will be one of the deepest teams in the SEC.

No question the bar will be set high. A lot of eyes from far and wide will be focusing in on this team.

Will it be a Top 25 squad? It should. And with that type of respect, the Bulldogs won't be flying under the radar as it did for most of this year.

"Our goal every year is to win championships," said Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury, who is seven wins shy from being the all-time winningest coach in school history. "That will never change."

The pieces to the puzzle are definitely in place for more titles and a ticket to the big dance.

It won't be easy, but a few reminders of what might have been this year should serve for a lot of motivation.

Not to mention the pain of a last-second shot that won't subside anytime soon.

Gregg Ellis (gregg.ellis@djournal.com) covers Mississippi State for The Daily Journal.

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