Benock Believes Dogs Can Win Way To NCAAs

He doesn't like thinking about it. Much less does he want it to come this weekend. So Riley Benock will do whatever he must to extend his senior season beyond the SEC Tournament and delay that inevitable end. "It's just going to do what I came here to do, play ball. You're never looking forward to that day, but I guess you could say it's a little extra motivation."

Of course all Bulldogs share a similar sense of motivation as they head to Atlanta. At 17-13, Mississippi State makes no pretense that their sole avenue to the NCAA Tournament is winning through this weekend and scoring the SEC's automatic bid. Some squads would find such a situation pressurized to the point of panic.

Mississippi State? Same old, same old, so it's time to just take care of business per Benock. In fact, he thinks it is more exciting here in 2011 than before.

"From the last couple of years we know what's at stake going in this year and I'm looking forward to going ahead and getting it started, making a three-game run."

The Bulldogs are going into tournament time on just that sort of tear in fact, capping an admittedly erratic regular season with a trio of victories. Two were against the East side of the league, at that, and the third was at Arkansas to lock up West #2 seed and an opening round bye. So in a real sense Mississippi State has been performing under post-season pressure for a couple of weeks already.

Benock figures they can take this upbeat attitude into Atlanta and make it pay off.

"Most of the time it feels like we're clicking, put it together as a team going into the tournament. So we're definitely confident. But having that feeling of back-against-the-wall and needing wins to get in the NCAA tournament is motivation for everybody."

The winter of 2010-11 has been one of motivation for Benock himself, and by any measure he is going out on a personal career high. Take his 6.3 scoring average; it is greater than the three previous seasons combined. Ditto for his 3.4 rebound rate, and with four more assists in Atlanta he'll have as many scoring passes as he did from 2007-10. Three-pointers? 52 the last three years, 49 this season so far. Worth noting also is that his 68 assists this senior campaign are twice his turnovers, proving Benock as a SEC playmaker.

And just yesterday came word that State's upperclassman was being recognized for his classroom efforts, as the SEC's basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Benock was still a bit dazzled by the award hours after getting the Tuesday news.

"It's nice, I really had no idea but it's a great honor," he said. Benock already has his post-graduate plans set, he will begin physical therapy school next fall at Bellarmine University in Louisville.

Yet there are the pending undergraduate matters to address in the Georgia Dome. A venue in which he has never played, though he was a freshman on the 2008 State squad that beat Alabama in overtime there. That was also the last SEC Tourney game played in the Dome due to the infamous O.T. tornado's damage. But Bulldog teams have rarely had much trouble finding the range in this arena and Benock expects to get plenty of practice shooting there prior to their Friday evening opener.

"It's good any time you go into a new venue to get extra shots up and make sure you have that comfort level. Any shooter will tell you when you're comfortable you shoot better." As to the opponent, State has to await Thursday's late game and final score between East #3 Vanderbilt and West #6 LSU. Both those potential foes have a win over MSU this year, and both came in Humphrey Coliseum, so there is a score of sorts to settle either way. Benock has no real preference of opponent anyway.

"I'm sure we'll have stuff from both teams and we'll have a little refresher course on both of them. But you remember stuff from teams anyway from what they've done in the past. We'll be ready either way."

As to the entire event, Benock agrees with popular opinion: this might be the most unpredictable SEC meet in years, and certainly in his own experiences. Don't go asking this Bulldog for firm predictions.

"It's hard to pin one down this year. Obviously Florida having the best record it's hard not to point to them. But I really feel it's wide-open to anybody. So you have to be ready to play regardless of who it is, Vandy or LSU we have to prepare the same way. Right now it's just getting ready to go."

Which he believes the Bulldogs should be. More encouraging than the three schedule-capping successes was how Mississippi State won. Perhaps they did not dominate long stretches of any win, other than to some extend the second half at Arkansas. Yet in all the wins the Dogs took and made the right shots, they worked the ball around and got points from the lineup(s), and they played the right defense when it mattered most.

One obvious factor was the return from a self-inflicted suspension of shooter Ravern Johnson, who has been blistering the nets down the stretch. Just the way Johnson did the last two years when the Bulldogs were at their best, in fact. "He's been huge for us," said Benock.

"Any time he's shooting the way he has that's a plus. Anytime you can stretch a defense like that it helps everybody." It has certainly helped offset some late-season shooting issues for guard Dee Bost who is chugging along despite a series of injuries and ailments and the demands of 36-37 tough minutes each evening. At times Benock has done his own perimeter part, though oddly the upperclassman declined to assert his offense on Senior Day.

"Last game I passed up a couple of shots," he admitted. "But before the game I didn't feel my shot was where it needed to be. Yesterday I stayed extra a long time trying to get that comfort level back."

Just as importantly is the comfort level the team now has with center Renardo Sidney. The big soph has not had huge statistical nights down the stretch but is clearly impacting how the entire game is played by both sides and made so much other stuff possible for the rest of the squad. Just in time, Benock believes, to make the all-or-nothing Atlanta attempt.

"It was kind of like flipping the switch for him, you could see the extra motivation and he's been feeding off that," the guard said, adding that this should only be a preview of coming Sidney attractions. "Oh, man, his talent is ridiculous as far as his size and skill level. I don't know if you can put a ceiling on him, it's about whatever he wants to get out of it. When it finally does click completely with him he'll be able to go anywhere. He's got special things ahead of him if he works at it."

Meanwhile the work is clearly cut out for Mississippi State. Yes, they can extend the season with at least one and more likely two additional victories that should secure a NIT berth. But the Bulldogs have been there and done that, and while any post-season play is better than none there is just one real tournament for a senior to conclude a career in.

Benock, along with classmates Kodi Augustus, Johnson, and Brandon Bolen, believe the NCAAs are within their reach. "We're confident. From playing in the league and being around we're confident enough to know we have what we need to get the job done. We've got guys that have been around the block so we feel we can play well and beat anybody. At the same time we realize we can be beaten by anybody.

"Anything can happen. And everybody knows what's at stake right now. We're all going in with the purpose of winning the tournament."

Gene's Page Top Stories