Bulldogs Go With Latest Lineup Flow

Talk about our winter of discontent… Riley Benock now has a fairly good idea what the Bard was talking about as he considers this Bulldog season. "It's pretty safe to say I've never been around anything quite like this year," the senior guard said. "In the past we've had our ups and downs but never anything to this level."

Which is a stout statement considering other recent winters in Humphrey Coliseum. Discontent might be the mildest description. Yet, for all the sound and fury signifying what Mississippi State's season has meant so far, Rick Stansbury is keeping a publicly calm approach to the ongoing tempest.

"You don't worry about what you can't control," the coach said today.

Stansbury was taking some control Monday afternoon as he announced an indefinite suspension of Ravern Johnson. The senior guard had already missed this past Saturday's win at LSU under a suspension for comments made on social network. Today, Stansbury added to the penalty.

"Ray will be indefinitely suspended. He missed practice Thursday and Friday, plus he has an academic attendance policy he's suspended for." The latter is a University suspension for missed classes that per the coach is "tacked on" to the skipped workouts. Johnson did not report for either practice day after State's mid-week loss at Alabama. This is his second such suspension of the season after he was benched against Alabama State back in December. Johnson is supposed to continue practicing.

His Saturday suspension though was for critical comments of team and coaching last week, though, which is the latest club controversy to go public. Maybe inevitably, the Dogs have simply learned to shrug off such situations and, "Try to concentrate on the basketball part of it," as Benock said. He also called such events "whittling down until you get to the core" as the roster has changed with two departures and frequent suspensions.

"But trying to stay positive. The guys that are here and want to be here, you can work with that."

For his part Stansbury is working with his available roster. "Lord no, what's different about it?" he responded in mock-seriousness to the natural question. Turning entirely serious, yes, he agreed, this has been a most unsettled season so far. "But when they do happen you have to handle it. For whatever reason we've had a few bad decisions. But there's accountability with those decisions."

One decision not entirely up to the coach is how to use guard Dee Bost, hobbled by an Achilles' injury from last week. The team's scoring and assist leader still played 36 minutes at LSU. "I wasn't going to," he said today. "The day before I couldn't do nothing, but as the day went on it loosened up." Still it took an obvious toll on Bost's offense as he was 2-of-11 shooting and 4-of-7 at the foul line. How he managed to make the game-clinching defensive stop, preventing LSU from getting off a last-chance shot, spoke well of his intensity.

"It hurt in all ways, mainly pushing off and planting," he said. "Basically I had to just tough it out and keep playing." Bost also intended to practice Monday and get treatment and medication, but no shot. Stansbury was going to keep a close eye on things, too. "We'll be smart with it, trust me." Benock, though, has his own projections for Bost in Wednesday's matchup with Arkansas. "Usually if he can walk, he's going to play."

Taking Johnson's starting job again would be freshman Jalen Steele, who didn't have a big day at LSU with four points and three rebounds. Still Johnson has had a struggling SEC shooting season himself this senior year so the tradeoff might be as great as stats would indicate. "We become a little more skilled," suggested Stansbury. "Riley slides to three, you lose ability of a guy to just jump and make shots but some other things you don't lose." Things like man-defense and ball-handling which are not Johnson's fortes.

Wherever he slides now, if Benock can keep up the sort of outside shooting he showed at Baton Rouge (4-of-5 at the arc) State shouldn't lose anything with the revised lineup. After going 3-of-14 in the previous three games the accuracy caught LSU off guard, but not Benock by surprise.

"I don't know if it was any one thing in particular. It's been frustrating missing shots I'm used to hitting, I was trying to be aggressive and knowing I need to fill a little bigger role with Ray being out. I think just having an aggressive mindset got me going, and I hit my first shot and gaining confidence from that." It should give the rest of the lineup added confidence of their own, too, given the indefinite absence of Johnson.

At the same time it was the closer-to-goal work of center Renardo Sidney that opened up some of those shots. The sophomore notched his first college double-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds, and while he was just 7-of-16 shooting against an admittedly feeble Tiger front line Sidney's better-controlled approach to post play was another positive sign.

"I think the encouraging thing was he stayed out of foul trouble," Stansbury said. "He played 31 minutes, that's probably a first. And he got to that basket a little bit. Fatigue is still a problem a little bit, but I saw some things better."

A better big Dog should be key to Wednesday's showdown. Arkansas (14-8, 4-5 SEC) comes to campus a half-loss behind the 4-4 Bulldogs. Given how the rest of the West is shaping up midway of league season, Wednesday's winner will have gained valuable margin in the race for a SEC Tournament bye. Realistically though the greater pressure is on State, not just as the host team but because the Bulldogs have lost twice to loop-leading Alabama where the Razorbacks are the only SEC team to top the Tide so far.

"It's a big game, obviously, in our season," said Benock, veteran of many a SEC stretch run. "We're neck and neck. But not just because it's West, but being a home game as well. We've already dropped a couple at home. 4-4, we need to make our move. Not so much for the season, to position for the SEC Tournament as well. It's one we feel we need to have."

And, said Steele, one the Dogs have to be on their best game for. "Arkansas is going to be a big defensive task for us, especially (Rotnei) Clark at two coming off screens." That being the Razorback marksman who can riddle any coverage from just about any spot this side of the halfcourt stripe. Clarke didn't hurt the Dogs last season, fortunately, going 3-of-16 in two games with State…but the potential is always there.

"Coach has been talking to me about how to play him," said Steele. "So I've been preparing for him during the weekend."

Stansbury acted surprised when told of State's ten-year winning streak in the Hump against Arkansas, though he naturally knows. By the same token, "That has zero to do with the 11th try," he said. Besides which, "Any time you can go to Vandy and win, they've done something nobody else has done. So that tells you what they're capable of. And they're the only team that's beaten Alabama."

State won't have a chance to do that the rest of this regular season now. But coming in right behind Alabama is another matter and one of great MSU interest at this point, since realistic hopes of a NCAA bid almost entirely now hinge on winning the SEC Tournament. Thus the emphasis on avoiding a Thursday game in Atlanta, per Benock.

"Just from being through it before, that first round bye is big. Obviously the fewer games play better you'll be. So we definitely want to get that first round bye. But we'll see how it plays out."

And in the meantime Stansbury will play with what personnel he decides is available. Johnson's rehabilitation process began with Monday's practice response, for one example. "Actions speak louder than words so we'll see. He seems remorseful but again there's an accountability." There is also the SEC accounting that gets only more intense each game from now to Atlanta, too, only amplifying the odd pressures as the Bulldogs charge once more into the breach.

"It's probably the hardest year I've been through," agreed Bost. "Everybody is still learning. But we really don't have any more room for mistakes, so we have to grow up as a team."

"We just got to keep getting better," Stansbury said. "It's a different challenge for us, and not just games but we have to find a way in practice to keep getting better." In which case, as the Bard put it, all's well that ends well.

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