Mississippi State (14-12) happens to hold that special spot as of today. A 6-6 SEC mark might look merely break-even on paper but .500 these days suffices for a full game-lead on both Ole Miss and Arkansas. Now the Bulldogs seek to maintain, even extend that margin over the remaining four games of this regular schedule, beginning Wednesday as the host Louisiana State.
The Tigers (10-17, 2-10 SEC) have nothing to play for tournament-wise at this point, but this fact doesn't factor into how Coach Rick Stansbury is approaching the Division matchup. One reason is, the coach says wryly, "With our team nothing is safe yet!" The other is Stansbury expects a somewhat different LSU lineup than the one State saw on February 5 when they won 58-57 in Baton Rouge.
Since then the Tigers have thrown scares into Ole Miss, Alabama, and Florida, without any Ws to show for it. "They've had some trouble consistently finishing games," Stansbury said. "But they're talented and probably have a little more rhythm than the first time we played them. And they're getting guys back full-speed. Their team has kept playing."
And in some areas improving. Playing a two-freshman backcourt is not often a recipe for SEC success. And along the way rookies Andre Stringer and Ralston Turner have had their pains; both figurative as in growing into the game, and literal with some minor injuries. Stansbury said scouting shows both are getting healthier in time for this game. "And they've got experience in the frontcourt," he added, mostly meaning former Ole Miss postman Malcolm White. The Tigers do have some tall, if not really big, other bodies to rotate at State's frontcourt.
But that one-point game earlier this month also involved a short-handed and hurting State squad. Wingman Ravern Johnson was suspended and his outside-offense absence allowed LSU to sag on Renardo Sidney and Kodi Augustus more often. They were a combined 10-of-24 shooting that day. And guard Dee Bost was playing on a bad Achilles tendon which showed in his worst shooting of SEC season.
This time everybody is back in good graces. The last two games off the bench Johnson is 10-of-17 shooting with seven treys made, more efficient than he was as a starter in fact. "He's been great since he's come back, and he's played well, too," said Benock, adding that where Johnson previously let off-nights at the arc affect his overall play that hasn't shown now. "So far he's not been like that, he's been positive and upbeat and playing well for us."
As for odds of senior Johnson regaining a starting job, Stansbury won't say today. Besides, "It doesn't matter who starts the games, it's who finishes he finishes the games.
"I like the way he's responded to everything, to his role he's been put into. And that's what we were looking for. I personally think it's made him better now. Practice, he's the best he's ever been. I think for the first time in his life he realized what a mistake he made."
Worryingly, Bost is not the best he's been. The Achilles is coming around but since then he's had both a hurting foot and hamstring. Stansbury held him out of practices prior to Saturday's obligatory romp over Ole Miss, and Bost was just 2-of-10 for the game…but had nine assists, no turnovers, and in alternation with Brian Bryant made the day miserable for Rebel guard Chris Warren.
"It's still sore but it's better than it was," Bost said Monday of the cranky ham, which hurts most on plant-and-shift moves. Having missed all pre-SEC play, Bost hit conference season full-strength and it has allowed him to average a team-best 16.5 points with a 65 assist/39 turnover linescore. But he's also averaged over 35 minutes and the grind of setting State's pace at each end is showing.
"I'd rather not play as many minutes to get a beak and finish the game strong. I guess just keep pressing and getting treatment."
Speaking of big numbers, Wednesday is a milestone for Benock as the senior will play in his 127th career game and tie Derrick Zimmerman for third on the MSU list. Former Benock teammates Barry Stewart and Jarvis Varnado have the record at 141.
"I didn't know that, that's a lot of games!" he said. "But this year is taking a little more toll on me than in the past." Though the closest he's come to sitting out a game was after a practice collision with guard Jalen Steele prior to the Arkansas date. To keep on this track, Benock quipped, "I'll stay away from John!" as in big and free-swinging reserve center John Riek. More seriously, Benock said late-February practices have been dialed-back a good bit.
"This time of year it's a real fine line," Stansbury said. And besides the body wear-and-tear, "Their mind controls everything else so you have to keep that mind fresh. We need to still do some things different in practice."
At least this late-season situation is reasonably routine for State, and if another West title is now out of reach the larger goal of SEC Tournament success and a NCAA opportunity remain viable. The Bulldogs also understand completely that the only available ticket to the big dance awaits in Atlanta, by reaching Sunday's title round and winning. Again, Benock notes, they've done it the harder way…but now they can ease the path by ending the regular schedule both a strong second in the West and on a win streak.
"We still feel we have what it takes to make a run, we've done that in the past," Benock said. And, the senior added, "I think we're on our way. It's hard to say definitely we've turned the corner but I definitely think we've made progress. Any time we're playing well together we feel we have the talent to beat anybody."
State goes back on the road Saturday to take on Tennessee (5:00ct, ESPN).