This first one brings #19 South Carolina (19-5, 9-2 SEC) to Humphrey Coliseum for a 7:00 tipoff. ESPN2 has the telecast, and likely hopes that this Gamecock game doesn’t play-out like the last. Not if the network wants to stay on schedule.
It was Tuesday evening that saw South Carolina taken into four overtimes by Alabama. Each time the visiting Crimson Tide had a last shot to snap a tie. The fourth chance worked and snapped a five-win streak for the Gamecocks. The loss also dragged South Carolina back into a three-way tie with Florida and Kentucky for the SEC lead.
Mississippi State (14-9, 5-6) is on no streak but is going through a struggling stretch. Ben Howland’s Bulldogs have lost three of their last four league games and five of the last seven. The latest setback was as frustrating as it was interesting.
Down as much as 21 points at Auburn, the Dogs battled back far enough for a two-possession contest. They couldn’t complete the comeback, and forced the final few clock minutes to last over a half-hour with both teams trekking to the foul line e-v-e-r-y series. The foul-fest made this regulation game seem to last as long as South Carolina’s four-ot affair.
The end result was still a 98-92 setback which took some edge off a preceding home win over Tennessee. In that triumph State had successfully survived a 19-point deficit, a feat they couldn’t repeat the next time out. It was a missed opportunity to take a road win and presumably improve a case for some sort of post-season opportunity.
Through the struggles Howland has kept calm with a team enduring obvious growing pains. That’s a pretty literal deal too. The roster’s only scholarship senior, IJ Ready, has missed the last three games and all but two minutes at Alabama before an ankle injury. This was aggravated last week by a return of Ready’s old back spasms issues.
Howland isn’t counting on the upperclassman tomorrow, either. Ready was out of the training room and at Thursday practice but spent it on the conditioning bike.
Of course Ready wasn’t starting when he got hurt. Howland shuffled his point guards on January 7 and has stuck with freshman Lamar Peters as starting quarterback. Offensively this has been a good change for Peters. After averaging 9.3 points in the first eleven games, he has scored 15.8 in ten starts, all SEC contests. While Peters has had to, or sometimes chosen to, force a lot of his league shots along this stretch he still has hit the same percentage as a non-starter before, just over 43%.
“He’s improved a lot,” Howland said. “And he has a lot of room to continue to improve. He’s so good when he has the ball and is guarding the ball. His biggest area of improvement in the future is off the ball.”
Since that switch the only lineup adjustment was for Missouri on January 25 when big guard Xavian Stapleton started ahead of forward Aric Holman, once. Otherwise it has been Peters, off-guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, wingman Mario Kegler, Holman, and center Schnider Herard.
So after a month to evaluate, and a rough stretch of results on the scoreboard, might Howland look to shake anything up now? This is considered, yes, the coach said. But…
“At the end of the day that’s not the answer. The answer is play better, as a team.”
This doesn’t lock the coach or club into anything though. With Ready not ready, freshman Eli Wright has picked up a few minutes here and there. His nine points on perfect field goal shooting at Auburn was a SEC-play high for the rookie. Stapleton wasn’t able to duplicate his 14-point performance against Tennessee but the potential has been proven.
It still falls to starters to set a better tone. Kegler has done his part lately. He followed up a 17-point show against the Vols with 16 more on Auburn, with 7-of-9 trey shooting and strong rebounding. His Tuesday play also only consisted of 20 minutes before fouling out, with two of those technicals as Kegler let his temper get the better of him.
Howland can look past those and see Kegler’s physical maturing during the season. The shooting and scoring are both coming along well but “I like how he’s defending. He’s taking a lot of pride in that respect. He’s grown as a player in all ways, that’s part of being a freshman.”
Weatherspoon is a sophomore and normally would be grown even more by now. The injured left wrist from December, and tendinitis all winter have hampered him clearly. Yet the past two games epitomize the strangeness of his season. He only had seven points on 3-of-18 shooting in the Tennessee victory.
Three nights later on the plains Weatherspoon was 8-of-17 with three made treys and 6-of-6 at the stripe for 25 total points. His team lost. Howland has no explanation for the radical swings in Weatherspoon’s play, and by now doesn’t give the ailments much importance either.
“Obviously we need him to have a good game tomorrow,” the coach said.
Against a mostly-veteran South Carolina lineup all Dogs need to have good games, and a few great ones to give the home team a chance. An upset would be just what Mississippi State needs before Tuesday’s trip to Georgia, then a visit from #17 Florida next Saturday. Ranked or not, home or away, Howland isn’t ready to shake much up.
That includes how he believes his Bulldogs must approach any and all games.
“The key for us, the way to stay in games, is doing it by defense. We have to focus on defending and rebounding first and foremost.”