Mississippi State (14-14, 5-11 SEC) visits South Carolina for what has become its typical midweek assignment, at 6:00ct. It is the seventh Tuesday contest of State’s SEC season and the day, or evening, hasn’t been kind so far with a 1-5 result.
Here is a last chance to better that informal record. More important, this week offers opportunity for the Bulldogs to finish the slate on a positive point and stop their six-loss slide. One which sophomore forward Aric Holman does not think is taking any attitude toll.
“Just I would say hungry. I don’t see none of the guys being down. We’re ready for the next game, ready to fight again.”
It will be a fight, per Coach Ben Howland. “It doesn’t get any easier tomorrow. It’s senior day. They have a heck of a team.”
Or at one point the Gamecocks were looking like a heck of a team. They have been ranked as high as #15 in one poll this season. When these teams first met on February 11 it was 19th and sharing the league lead. It turned into quite a scrap in Humphrey Coliseum with a 77-73 escape.
Not much has gone well since for either team, with just one win between them. A three-loss streak put the Gamecocks (21-8, 11-5) out of SEC title contention, out of the rankings, and on slippery NCAA Tournament status. South Carolina did stop the bleeding Saturday by beating Tennessee, leaving them tied for third with Arkansas as they scramble to clinch SEC Tournament byes.
Howland and club reviewed round-one on Sunday and were reminded of that seven-point lead late in the first half; then getting up one point down the real stretch. South Carolina switched to zone and the Dogs had no answer on that end.
On the other the veteran Gamecocks put their accumulated experience to good use with sharper passing and some creative attacks to regain the lead and keep just enough control. The key all along was guard Sindarius Thornwell with 28 points including three treys with four assists. Howland has touted the senior as SEC player of the year. He’s one (actually second by a half-point to Malik Monk) in scoring, fifth in rebounding, I think he might be one in steals. He’s having a great year. And one of our top two matchups won’t be on him.”
Or maybe not. It depends on how fast guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (16.5ppg) gets back after spraining an ankle at Vanderbilt. A Monday x-ray showed no other damage than the sprain fortunately, but Howland called it questionable at best if Weatherspoon can go Tuesday. Much less, go against Thornwell. If not then a defender drawn from a group of guard Xavian Stapleton, forward Mario Kegler, or guard Eli Wright will have to take over. Or take turns more likely.
Stapleton had one of his better offensive games of the year against the Gamecocks and should be ready for rematch. That night was even bigger for freshman guard Tyson Carter with 22 points off the bench. Carter has just 49 points his other 11 SEC games combined, and his shooting has been off-mark since South Carolina. But hitting from long will be crucial when USC goes to the zone again.
What Howland really wants to see in round-two is a much more assertive Schnider Herard. The freshman center took only one official shot the first time. He made it, too. But that was it for 18 minutes, along with just three rebounds. South Carolina’s big and seasoned frontcourt taught the rookie a lot of lessons about SEC life. Holman tried to help out in the paint and did get seven points but fouled-out trying to match muscle in the process.
The possible wild card this time is IJ Ready. He missed the first game with injury and returned the next weekend. Ready has been all-or-little since, such as scoring 20 against Ole Miss before a 0-of-4 point-less day at Vanderbilt. Still he is something different to throw into the matchup mix, and using both Ready and Lamar Peters together does give State a faster offensive approach. For good and for bad, admittedly, as Peters has hit a serious shooting slump. He is just 5-of-27 in the last three losses.
This last one was the worst. Up to then even in defeats the Dogs have played competitive ball losing five games by 27 total points. Then Vanderbilt ran up leads of 30-plus and won by 29. Inevitably questions about giving up, going through motions, and so on arose.
Howland hasn’t seen it so.
“Give our guys credit. They come to practice every day and work hard. And we had a good practice. So it’s not like they’re not showing up and competing on a daily basis. That’s a positive.”
This may not be much of a positive but at #12 seed currently the Bulldogs can try to climb up to 10th before everyone assembles next week in Nashville. State hosts cellar-dweller LSU to end the regular schedule.
These Dogs can’t avoid a first-day game at the SEC Tournament. What they can do, with help, is set up a better matchup and have a shot of at least breaking-even for Howland’s second season.
Saturday’s 5:00 finale will be Senior Day in the singular sense since only Ready is an upperclassman.