“It can be real frustrating, to lose by six and eight, knowing you’re right there,” Stapleton said. “It hurts, but it also motivates us to work harder and come back and get some wins.”
Mississippi State (14-10, 5-7 SEC) really, really needs to come back at get some wins. With three weeks and six games remaining on schedule the Bulldogs have an uphill fight ahead to score the program’s first break-even league finish since 2012.
The battle resumes Tuesday evening and on the road at that, as State visits a Georgia (14-11, 5-7) team with similar situation. Both Bulldog squads have been limping lately; State losing four of the last five and Georgia three of their last four.
Georgia does have the home court in their favor at least. And, they are coming off a one-point win at Tennessee. State’s Dogs suffered those close setbacks guard Stapleton referred to, with the most recent win at home over the same Volunteers.
Coach Ben Howland took no more joy than his players in re-viewing Auburn and South Carolina contests. He could take away some positive glimmers, in how his Dogs do continue to give good second-half efforts and keep things competitive.
“The guys are improving. It’s just step by step, slowly.”
And, frustratingly. Just as is the daily training room report. Senior point guard IJ Ready has been improving as far as the back spasms and ankle injury which have sidelined him all but two minutes of the last five games. Howland reported Ready was doing controlled running Sunday and some other work, with at least a little hope he can return to action.
The coach could not update guard Lamar Peters’ status ahead of Monday practice though. The hip pointer problem has essentially become a wholly-painful leg from further contact and falls since the Ole Miss game. “We just have to wait and see,” Howland said of tomorrow’s availability.
Either injury would be a squad setback. Together, this takes both point guards off a club needing their leadership badly. In the pinch there was the encouraging sight of freshmen Tyson Carter and Eli Wright doing what they could to replace…almost everything.
“I was excited about Eli’s minutes and Tyson’s minutes,” Howland said. 48 minutes exactly and 29 points combined. Of course 22 of those points were by Carter with a brilliant first-half shooting show, after the rookie had 26 total points in the previous ten games.
Carter’s second half wasn’t so sharp since he inevitably tired and had to deal with the intensity of handling the ball more. Classmate Wright picked up some of the responsibility, though he too is not a real point guard. He is, Howland said, doing more other things now than before. Some out of necessity, and some by just getting comfortable in college.
“He’s blocking out, he’s penetrating and making nice passes. He got a nice offensive rebound the other day, he makes a big three on a kickout. I think Eli has come a long way.”
If neither point guard can go or start Tuesday one of these could move into the lineup. Howland did make another switch for the last game, putting Stapleton at small forward with Mario Kegler moving up to frontcourt. It was the second time Howland has taken big forward Aric Holman out to insert Stapleton.
The coach said it is about matchups, mostly. But Holman has also shown a long drop-off in production. Back when State won three-straight SEC games the sophomore scored double-digits each time. Since then he hasn’t topped nine points and scored just 46 in eight contests.
It isn’t fair to connect one player directly to a team’s slide. At the same time Howland has noticed Holman isn’t “playing with the vigor we need” in many of his starts. “I think it helps him coming off the bench. Whether he starts or comes of the bench tomorrow night remains to be seen.”
Whatever the position, freshman Kegler has been picking up his pace with 49 points the last three games on 65% shooting. Now, if only Quinndary Weatherspoon could find such consistency for any stretch.
It has been a most frustrating stretch for the sophomore guard, win or lose. He was 3-of-18 for seven points when State rallied past Tennessee. Next time out he torched Auburn for 25 points in the loss.
Saturday though was a rock-bottom day; 1-of-5 in 28 minutes and five points. By game’s end he was passing and did notch five assists, which is well and good. But Weatherspoon is here to shoot and to score.
Howland remains faithful, particularly after watching Weatherspoon this morning at an individual session. “At one time I think Q mad 32 threes in a row. I’d expect him to shoot well tomorrow.” Stapleton has been getting up extra jumpers as well. Whatever the status for Ready or Peters, “We need other guys to step up,” he said. “Especially me, Mario, and Q.”
Tuesday’s tipoff is 8:00ct for ESPNU.