Guard Jalen Steele wasn't as openly frustrated as his older teammate. But baffled by this slide, yes, when asked what puzzles he and teammates most. "The losing part! That's been the most surprising. Right now seems anything we do it's not clicking right. But we're trying to find it and get it back together. And we've got to get it back together soon."
Soon as in Wednesday evening when the Bulldogs visit South Carolina in what has become a must-win for MSU's sake. Of course beating a team that occupies the low league rung with a 2-12 SEC record, 10-18 overall, would be a ‘must' under normal circumstances. That is, to avoid hurting the record, RPI, and post-season positioning. But now the last regular-season road trip of 2012 takes on almost do-or-die status for State. A loss Wednesday could leave Rick Stansbury's club needing to win the SEC Tournament for the NCAA Tournament bid that less than a month ago seemed inevitable.
Not that Stansbury is hitting any panic buttons of course. He's been down this late-season trail before, and while the last couple of years have ended in letdowns the coach is staying the standard course. "We keep doing what we've always done, we keep working yard. When things don't go well you keep doing what you've been doing."
Well, maybe not exactly that. Stansbury assuredly doesn't want to add any more Ls to the record at this point. Neither does he want his players flashing their frustrations at this fragile point, which he said was behind Moultrie's comments Monday. In Saturday's 67-50 loss at Alabama to extend the streak, the team's leading scorer took all of three official shots and made one. Moultrie's prior low was six shots at Arkansas back on January 7 in the SEC season opener.
And his seven points were lowest of the year, period, contrasting to his average of 16.0 this year on 55% shooting. Five came on free throws when Moultrie was able to get to the ball despite aggressive Alabama efforts including a lot of tight second half zone. In the previous three games Moultrie had averaged over eleven shots from the floor and made free throws otherwise, giving him 16 double-doubles for the season.
Maybe the frustration is understandable, Stansbury acknowledged. "You wish he wouldn't feel that way. But if that's what he said, everybody has to take their own responsibilities." And the coach meant everybody in uniform, and in every game of the losing streak.
"I wish all we could make another stop here or there. Probably until this last game, Kentucky we couldn't ask more than that. But it's one frippin' play. I know it's easy, we get frustrated because some things haven't gone our way."
Which is what the recent record shows. But single plays, frippin' or not, don't seem to be isolated instances for Mississippi State of late. "It's a combination of different things," agreed Moultrie, who can't cover his annoyance at the chain of events. This is the same squad that beat Arizona and West Virginia in the fall, played Baylor to a last shot, and scored a key road SEC win in overtime at Vanderbilt.
"That's the most disappointing thing, that we're capable of much more than what we're showing right now," Moultrie said. Which raises the question of…why? How have things come to this polarized point? "These last five or six games we haven't been playing like a team," Moultrie bluntly said. "Everybody has got their own agendas."
"I see how they come in here (for interviews) and say how bad they want to win, how bad they want to go to the Final Four, but everybody doesn't work as hard as they say, as bad as they want to win."
Stansbury did not seem too surprised or even concerned when told of his star player's comments. "Now's not a time for pointing fingers at each other, now is a time to take responsibility for your own actions and work harder. It's easy to make excuses, now is not the time to make excuses."
Speaking of fingers, Stansbury had more bad news as far as the week's active roster. Backup small forward Shaun Smith has a broken middle finger on his right, shooting, hand and is out for Wednesday at least. The injury comes at the one position State could least afford to lose anyone else because starting small forward Rodney Hood remains sidelined by a left knee bone bruise suffered against Kentucky. There might be some signs of progress there though.
We're going to try to get him to do something on it today for the first time," Stansbury said. "Can he move or jump any at all, we'll find out in a few minutes. When Rodney is ready he's one of those guys who will push himself, he's not trying to save himself. He understands it's different out there without him."
To say the least, as without Hood and his all-court talents State sputters, most obviously on offense. Hood's absence did Moultrie no favors as Alabama could safely sag. South Carolina, which has some size if not a lot of bulk, will almost surely try the same approach and dare Steele and Dee Bost to make them pay.
Though, Bost said, the issue has been as much what the Dogs don't do defensively as any offensive issues. "And lately if we don't make plays we let teams score," he said. Asked what has happened to the sound defensive squad of mid-winter, Bost was taken aback.
"What hasn't happened? Everything has happened." More frustratingly, it happens almost on a schedule because in all five losses the Bulldogs have led, often by double-digit margins, only to run out of steam just before halftime…and then seem to return to the court in a daze for the last half.
"I don't know. I really don't know," Bost said. "I can't say going to the locker room just sitting there, because we did it all year when we were winning."
That does though offer some hope to a struggling squad, that what worked before can work again. "Any time you lose five in a row that's bad," Bost sad. "But it's a new day and we have to try to get a win Wednesday."
Moultrie for his part wasn't sounding too optimistic about a turnaround, at least not initially in Monday's talk. But he loosened up and offered this. "I believe that with one win we can go on a win streak, just to break the ice." Signally that just maybe Mississippi State and even should regain control of a season that has been in tailspin for two weeks.
"There's some things I wish we did better," Stansbury said. "But at this point it's where it is right now."