Dogs Focused On Finishing Homestand Strong

Forgive the Bulldogs if they get the sense they're playing for another league's title here in the pre-conference season. Because Tuesday night brings a fifth, and fortunately final, matchup with a Sun Belt opponent as Mississippi State hosts Florida Atlantic.

Or perhaps one oughtn't say ‘fortunately' because the SEC's lesser neighbor has provided almost half of the Mississippi State (9-1) victories so far this fall semester season. Regardless, the Bulldogs have also scored three higher-profile conquests to secure a solid power rating and top-twenty ranking. State expects to keep climbing into the new week on the strength of a eight-win streak that continued last Saturday with a 106-68 romp over (yes) Sun Belt member Troy.

The last five wins have all come on the home court as well, a definite advantage in this squad getting off to the best start for State since 2003-04. So it is very good times for Bulldog basketball this fall…

…but only as long as they keep it going and take care of business. Such as Tuesday evening at 8:00 against FAU (4-5), the late weeknight tipoff being for CSS telecast. Given their ongoing success there would seem some natural temptation to take this one for granted.

Not so, say some Dogs with good memories. Rather, bad ones of what happened a year ago in the Hump against another FAU squad. "Well, we showed last year when we played them you can't look past any opponents," said guard Dee Bost. Because the Owls left the Hump with a 61-59 win in the first-ever meeting of the schools.

Bost didn't play in that game as he was serving out a fall 2010 semester suspension. But he recalls it all too painfully for how that home-court setback stung program pride. Now comes a chance to correct a past MSU mistake, the Dogs say.

More bluntly, to get a bit of payback. "Yeah, that's basically on my mind," said guard Jalen Steele who was part of that upset. "So we're going to focus and get this win."

One thing these Bulldogs haven't shown in the season so far is the sort of letdown night previous teams were prone to. Perhaps they could have played better in a few of their nine wins, but not once have they been charged with going through any motions. Even when they could surely afford to, such as matchups with Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas.

Nor has Rick Stansbury's squad let distractions, such as having players sidelined or suspended at varying dates, spoil their attention. In fact, the Bulldogs have been able to turn such missing-the-actions games into excellent opportunities to win with different starting lineups and substitution patterns. The end result has been a more versatile ball club not lacking for individual confidence.

Steele, the sophomore, is the best current example. He was expected to work himself into game-shape gradually after the late-season knee injury and summer recovery. But with starter Brian Bryant now serving a multiple game suspension Steele has stepped into a tipoff-team role again, and thrived.

Any lingering concerns about his outside shot, or confidence therein, were answered when he torched Troy for four treys in the first half and another in the last. "It feels very good," said Steele, crediting lots of overtime work. Or early-time work even. "Staying after practice a lot and hitting some shots, then a lot of times I come before practice and hit some shots. So it works out good."

For Bost, too, as a hot-shooting Steele is bound to give him more open room to shoot from himself. Or, against man defenses, a single defender to beat without time for opponents to swing some help over his way. Closer to the goal forward Arnett Moultrie has simply taken charge, with five double-doubles already in his eight games played and a SEC-leading rebound rate of 11.3. With the junior dominating paint at each end center Renardo Sidney has been able to play the complementary role as many minutes as he's up to.

Perhaps that isn't exactly the role this former prep all-American expected but until Sidney gets in real game shape the 22 minutes of his current average might be the limit. Then again, as Wendell Lewis gradually asserts himself there is no need for Stansbury to delay substituting. Lewis' 6.0 points and 5.0 rebounds aren't huge numbers, maybe, but his sheer efficiency is getting noticed at last.

Besides, Moultrie says in an expert's opinion, "Wendell is probably the most-improved player on this team. He and Jalen are the reasons why this team is doing so good."

Well, that and the contributions of maybe the finest true freshman to start at State in a generation. Of course Rodney Hood is a second-generation Bulldog himself, but as Troy coach Don Maestri noted this kid is a better and more skilled athlete than his father. And Maestri would know, having been on the MSU staff when Ricky Hood was playing forward in Humphrey Coliseum. Maestri's claim that Rodney is also better-looking is not debated by those who have seen both, either.

Only because the rest of the lineup piled up big points was Hoods 12 Saturday scores barely mentioned. But Stansbury saw something else. "He had six assists, and no turnovers. That's a great stat. He can give you so much more, but there are a lot of guys doing some things. He's kind of found his niche and is very efficient."

It's hard to ask for a much more efficient season-start than what State has gotten off to, with only the hiccup way back on November 9 against Akron marring the record. Otherwise things have played out as well as possible, maybe even better than that given the need to develop different lineups and roles. This should pay off come conference season, Stansbury believes.

"I think we've got enough balance on this team that we can be efficient either way. We've got enough size, and we've got enough guards running the ball. We've got a lot of versatility."

And more opportunities to show it. After FAU comes a weekend trip to play a more dangerous Detroit team at 11:00am (CT) Saturday. First things first, though, says Bost.

"We have to keep the same focus as if we're playing the number-one team in the country," he said of Tuesday's home date. Why, the senior guard is even trying to play the ‘lack of respect' card to keep the club on some sort of edge. Not easy for a top-twenty team with the best winning percentage in the SEC now, but hey, whatever it takes, right?

"I feel like we still got a point to prove no matter what," Bost said. "We've got a long way to go as a team and we're going to keep putting up points. It's in our control really, keep winning and they start paying attention."

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