Bulldogs Catch Breath With Midweek Break

SEC open dates are set by network and conference officials. But as it happens, Mississippi State couldn't have scheduled their off-day much better than for February 1. And not just because 99% of Bulldog attention will be on football's National Signing Day anyway.

"The break is probably coming at a good time for us," Coach Rick Stansbury said today. "To catch our breath just a little bit and get ready for the long haul."

Hopefully a very long haul at that, one extending beyond the remaining regular season and conference tournament games. How long the Bulldogs are hauling though might depend on how much advantage they can take of the short break to both evaluate the first month of SEC action, apply learned lessons, and perhaps get the roster back to full strength.

Mississippi State's season resumes Saturday with a 3:00 game against Auburn, the first of three home dates in an eight-day span as well as five home games out of the next six contests. The Bulldogs were given Monday off and return to practicing tomorrow with a few days to just focus on themselves and not an opponent.

"Not having a midweek game comes at a good time for our team," Stansbury said today in a short SEC teleconference.

The Bulldogs ought to find a lot of good timing in their schedule with or without a down-day. They will be busy enough once play resumes, of course, but the outlook is very encouraging. The next three opponents all rank in the bottom-third of SEC scoring. Add in the rematch with LSU four games from now and the upcoming quartet are among the league's least efficient shooting squads. Stansbury won't use the phrase of course but Mississippi State is about to begin the softest stretch on the entire slate, two weeks ideal for building up the record and improving the NCAA resume.

A national ranking always helps and the Bulldogs still have one. A 69-57 loss at Florida only cost four spots in the AP poll, with State now #22. They have held a ranking since the third week of the season with a high-water mark of #15.

Losing at Gainesville was frustrating but not an upset, certainly not in this SEC ‘year of the home team'. Still Mississippi State was optimistic about stealing another road game after their overtime victory at Vanderbilt, which might well be the most impressive to-date road SEC win of any league team. And midway of the second half the Bulldogs were holding their own, until a smart defensive stop by the Gators negated a goal and ignited the home team on the winning offensive run.

The run might have happened anyway, not just because Florida has the SEC's most explosive offense but because there are some tired Dogs these days. Stansbury used seven players at Florida, his three reliable frontcourt men and a single rotation's worth of guards. No wonder Bulldogs Dee Bost, Rodney Hood, and Arnett Moultrie are 1-2-3 in SEC game minutes player in this league.

No wonder too those Dogs welcome any downtime. They'd welcome even more getting one of their number back, as freshman guard Deville Smith has missed another week with a still-undefined health situation. Stansbury should have an update Tuesday at his campus press meeting. Until/if the rookie returns, the coach will ride Bost, fellow starter Brian Bryant, and second shooting guard Jalen Steele. Stansbury did get a minute here and there for reserve Shaun Smith in two games but wasn't using him against the up-tempo Gators.

Bost, putting in over 37 SEC minutes, would surely welcome the young point guard back. The senior sucked it up for a big overtime effort in Nashville but in the two games since his shooting has again slumped, especially at the arc. And while Bost has kept up the assists pace, his 18 scoring passes must be matched against 11 turnovers. It was Bryant stepping up his game in Gainesville with 11 points including his first trey since December 28.

Steele has had the hot hand, quite likely because he's moved from starting responsibility to substitute opportunities. Off the bench he has been sticking three-pointers consistently, 13-of-23 in the last four games. Of course that is just about the extent of Steele's contributions as in the same four games he has a single assists and about as many rebounds as turnovers. Yet outside shooting is more than worth it.

Especially if it can ease pressure on the big Dogs. Moultrie remains the key to State success and notched a double-double against Florida, his SEC-best 13th of the season and in just 19 total games. But Florida's underrated frontcourt put up a better defense than many expected Saturday, limiting Moultrie to ten shots (four made, in a rare sub-.500 outing) and forcing six turnovers with traps and double-teams. Tiredness could well be a factor here, too, contributing to frustrations and fouls. Moultrie has drawn nine personals in the last two games alone, very much out of his overall season character.

Still Moultrie has to keep grinding because center Renardo Sidney struggles to stretch past 25 or so minutes. He managed 27 at Florida, a regulation time benchmark, and even put in some solid defense at times. But he shot 2-of-7 and missed both trey tries. For the last three games Sidney is 7-of-25, and while he has made two treys including a crucial hit at Nashville time away from the paint cuts into rebounding. And foul opportunities; he's been to the foul line four times in three games with a single make.

Today's teleconference did go long enough for the Sidney subject to detour, following an interesting if unsupported story out of New York that the junior will be leaving State after this season. Stansbury wasn't commenting on the story or really contradicting the supposition at this point, as neither seems relevant to the situation.

"I don't know where that report is coming from," he said. "We haven't talked about his future plans at all, we're just trying to get through this season." Sidney's SEC stats—8.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 40% shooting—aren't the sort of numbers to attract professional scouting anyway. Where he has contributed a bit more lately is position defense, where as long as he doesn't attack an opponent Sidney is able to evade fouls.

For that matter, and contrary to passionate fan opinions, Mississippi State remains the least-whistled team in the NCAA for another week. By the same token the Bulldogs' style has forced opposing fouls, a good thing as State is a 73% free-throwing team in SEC play and has made 104 charity tosses compared to just 66 for league opponents.

Still Stansbury has some fundamental things to address this week. Most notably, an assist/turnover rate of just under breaking even. That isn't a terrible rate generally, but opponents are far better at protecting the ball and delivering to scorers. At least better percentage-wise; timing-wise the Dogs have had a knack for forcing a decisive mistake that sealed two SEC home wins. Still Stansbury would prefer consistency here.

He has the chance to stress it, too, with a couple of free days going into February. Stansbury was to take care of his call-in show Monday evening, while some staff members were out recruiting. The State coaches even get another break from the schedule. Two of their next three opponents play each other Wednesday night as Auburn takes on Georgia.

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