"We're going in with the mindset we want to win it all."
Bost started on that '09 team which indeed won it all, of course, and his memory is bright on the subject. With that remarkable four-day tear through Tampa those Bulldogs earned an NCAA Tournament trip, something they could only achieve via the SEC's automatic berth. It was also the last time Mississippi State made the national title tournament.
The '12 case is not quite so critical. At 21-10 these Dogs, depending on what unofficial analyst one favors, either have one paw inside the dance hall door already or are right on the verge. They do not have to win four games in as many days to secure a return to NCAA play.
But most also believe Mississippi State had best not make a one-and-done appearance in New Orleans. A first-round exit ought not rule MSU out of a bid completely, but they would spend a couple of uncomfortable days watching results from other conference classics and guessing how each score impacts selection Sunday.
It is a risk neither team nor coach wants to take, again. Bost and Rick Stansbury have much more bitter memories of 2010 when a three-game State run to the finals and the still-controversial overtime loss to Kentucky left them out in the NCAA cold a few hours later. Even now Stansbury can barely discuss that awful afternoon in Nashville without checking temper and tongue.
So no wonder the coach is pushing his team to take care of their own fate here in tournament time, to put their up-and-down, and hopefully on the up again, schedule behind them. "This season is over now," Stansbury said. "Now it's a four-game season."
Note the ‘four game' comment, which is surely coach-speak to keep the Bulldogs focused on business at hand rather than succumbing to NCAA distractions. Nobody thinks State needs to play four times this year, much less walk out of the NOA with a trophy, for post-season qualification. That's fortunate because beyond first-round foe there is little resemblance between teams. The 2009 squad was almost ideally set up for day-to-day play with a lot of athletes and depth. They also benefitted from perhaps the SEC of that year being at an all-time low in overall quality. Only three teams got NCAA bids and had State not won automatic entry it would have been just two.
The league landscape is different these days. Not that SEC basketball is anywhere remotely near the top dog stature this conference owns in football and baseball, of course. But there is progress in SEC country. Kentucky is guaranteed a number one NCAA seed, perhaps the highest of the four; Florida and Vanderbilt are confident of bids, and Alabama might be the best ‘story' of the season. Expectations are that Mississippi State is the fifth SEC squad with NCAA opportunity, if not quite yet a real reservation.
Depending, still, on beating Georgia. The first-round matchup would be big for the Bulldogs anyway, but playing those other Dogs has gotten attention. "It's a lot of motivation," said Bost. Just why would a #11 seeded opponent add incentive to State's situation?
"They beat us," Bost said. "They started our losing streak."
Yes, the streak…the five-straight defeats that turned State's season upside-down for a few frustrating weeks, and shoved them far too close to that mythical ‘bubble' than is comfortable. It also took a team once ranked #15 and on the fast track to a strong NCAA seeding, not to mention siteing reasonably close to Starkville for fan convenience, out of the rankings and perhaps farther from home. Perhaps, as come Sunday when the committee has to fill in slots there is always the chance the Dogs might find themselves playing in Nashville or Louisville. For that matter some hope to end up in Omaha, a destination Mississippi State folk are fondly familiar with for other reasons.
The challenge is not only to lock up that bid with a Thursday win but avoid being assigned to the new-for-'12 first round games in Dayton. State would take that if necessary of course, but it would mean a midweek game followed quickly by a normal weekend contest. And this team is well-known as not ideal for playing too often. Related to that, assistant coach Phil Cunningham said Monday there are concerns about forward Rodney Hood's pace of recovery.
The freshman was able to play minutes in State's two must-win games last week, and without his five points at South Carolina there is no telling where the Dogs might stand today. But Hood is not 100% with the bruised knee. "We thought he'd be farther along than he was," Cunningham said. "Hopefully he can heal up more this week." MSU also has to keep an eye on center Renardo Sidney, who missed one whole game—the loss at Auburn—with back spasms.
The point being there is no margin now for injury, much less the sort of rotation State used in 2009 when at times Stansbury could replace entire lineups at a time. "I don't know that we can do that this year," Cunningham said, "We don't have the same numbers we had in 2009."
Georgia might offer at least some respite in that regard. The other Dogs (14-16, 5-11 SEC) aren't a running team at all, preferring to pace their offense with constant passing to rush defenders back-and-forth across the floor until something comes open. Like, an outside shot. In fact, that day at Humphrey Coliseum it was Georgia, one of the worst perimeter offenses in the league at that time, which burned the home Dogs for eleven treys. One of those Cunningham remembers too well, the overtime outside shot Kentavious Caldwell-Pope threw in over Hood. The 70-68 upset left State stunned and in a sense they took three weeks to recover.
"They beat us here on the home court," Bost said. "But we didn't play the way we were supposed to play. Give them credit, they played a good game." And the Bulldogs didn't, letting frustrations with Georgia's controlled approach lure them into hurrying things at the other end. Bost will admit his own guilt; he took 17 shots while big men Sidney and Arnett Moultrie had 15 combined shots.
"We guards played a little too fast and didn't try to fee the bigs," Bost said. "We play the best when we play inside-out." Bost is still scoring his point of course, not least because with Hood gimpy he has to pick up some of the shots. An outside shooting slump by G Jalen Steele has put more burden on G Brian Bryant to take and make shots, too, and he responded splendidly. He had 16 at South Carolina including the game-winner, and 15 more against Arkansas.
Still Moultrie is the center-piece to State's post-season potential. Just named the Howell Award winner yesterday, the junior is back on his game just in time. He has 35 points and 22 rebounds in the last two wins and has shot 13-of-18 from the floor. It needs noting he took only six shots against Georgia, a team Moultrie should be able to have his way with.
Those are technical aspects. Bost thinks the real key is mindset at this point of the season. "We've got to come with a killer instinct," he said. "It's not going to be hard, we know what we're facing. We know what kind of team they are and what we're facing, so we have to turn it up."
The Bulldogs know what they are capable of when turning it up. They only need to remember back to January when State went into Memorial Gym and outlasted Vanderbilt for an overtime victory…quite likely the critical win that now is keeping MSU in the NCAA picture in spite of that losing streak. And by pure coincidence, should the Dogs take care of Georgia it will be the Commodores waiting for a Friday night rematch.
So for all the regular season twists and turns, the Bulldogs can see things setting up nicely for their post-season. As long as they take care of immediate business, that is. Bost has been here before and seen both sides of the bubble and understands best what is at stake.
"It's now or never. It's my last year and I want to get back to the tournament."
Mississippi State leaves for New Orleans today, with a scheduled Wednesday press appearance. With open-locker room policies for post-season, media will have their first access to Sidney since last fall.