Dogs Seek Consistency For SEC Second-Half

Give the Bulldogs credit for demonstrating, repeatedly, the knack for putting a bad game behind and winning the next one. Still they'd prefer to get off the roller-coaster and find a steadier, smoother ride. "That's the plan," said guard Barry Stewart. "We've got to be more consistent going through the rest of the league games."

Mississippi State's search for SEC consistency resumes Saturday when the Bulldogs host Arkansas in a 2:00 Division rematch. It's been less than a month since these Western rivals opened the league schedule against each other, with State hanging a 70-56 thumping on the host Razorbacks. That outcome signaled how the first month of conference competition would play out for each side. The Dogs bring a 5-2 SEC mark into round-two and are a game out of first place in the Division. Arkansas has struggled to a 1-6 start and brings up the West rear.

Not that any Bulldog is presuming upon such trends or that the second time-around will automatically follow the first, even with the advantage of the home court. "We know they're going to come after us," said Stewart. "They're looking for some payback."

Arkansas has the horses—or Hogs—to do it. The starting lineup lists four scoring in double-digits with fine inside-outside balance on offense. The inside role is handled by Michael Washington at over 17 points-per outing, and if more of a forward than true center he is that much more dangerous with a face-the-goal game. And, a knack for drawing fouls as he's been to the stripe 136 times in 20 games. Washington plays big enough around the rim to average an impressive 9.9 rebounds, too, tops in the league this week, and is looking for his 200th board of the season Saturday. He caught 15 caroms in the meeting with MSU back on January 10.

For two months it was the up-tempo antics of youngsters Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clark that had the Hogs looking like league contenders, especially when they knocked off Big XII powers Oklahoma and Texas in short order. SEC play has been another story mostly, especially for point guard Fortson; while he still sets the pace with 130 assists in his rookie campaign he's also up to 86 turnovers, and the outside shots aren't falling so often now. Still he is giving Arkansas almost 15 points a game and putting in 33 minutes on a typical evening. Clark is the first marksman to watch with 45 treys and 38% arc-accuracy, while old hand Stefan Welsh has 38 longballs on 35% shooting.

Conference season has taken a toll on the team's numbers as a whole. Arkansas is 11th in the league in shooting through seven games, 10th in scoring, and 11th in scoring defense. And only Kentucky has given up more three-pointers, while the Razorbacks are last in outside-shooting percentage making just one out of every four trey-tries. Still the Bulldogs aren't taking anything for granted.

"I watched them last night play Tennessee they're still a good team," said Stewart. "They've got some guys that can make some shots in Fortson and Clark, and a good inside presence in Washington."

In fact that formula sounds a lot like the way the Bulldogs play, only they've been doing it better. And never moreso than Tuesday evening in a 66-57 romp at Kentucky which was usually more lopsided than the final margin. After both sides sputtered through ten minutes State caught fire first and ran out to a double-digit lead that held most of the evening. The Bulldogs humbled proud Kentucky from their own arcs by sticking 14 three-pointers, in fact they only needed nine other baskets scored on closer attempts. Wingman Ravern Johnson accounting for five of those treys and Turner hitting for four more. Soph Turner took game scoring honors with 18 points and came away with eight rebounds, seven defensive. Coming just three days after a humbling homecourt setback to rival Ole Miss, the Tuesday victory said much about MSU's mindset. "That we just bounce back when we have to," said Johnson. "I know we had some tough losses but we came back with a big road win to boost everything back up."

For that matter it was the second time in as many weeks as the Bulldogs recovered from a bad loss with a road win, as they responded to the initial SEC defeat at LSU by beating Georgia. It's not exactly how State wants to script the schedule, as the losses have cost them the top spot in the West standings held in mid-January. But at least they've proven resilient to stress.

"I think it says leadership," said Stewart, who himself hit big first-half shots and finished with 13 points and a trio of treys at Kentucky. "We've got some good leadership on this team. And being able to stay focused under pressure. We lost a big game the other day and I think it says a lot about our team to be able to bounce back."

Still it would be even better not to need any bounce-back. And though the league schedule isn't half-done yet State can't practically afford to give away any more ground to LSU, who comes to Humphrey Coliseum next Wednesday for a West showdown. For that matter Ole Miss has suddenly pulled within a win of the Bulldogs in that column and can't wait to get MSU on their home court.

Which means State has to break the up/down cycle, especially this weekend. "We can't let another game at home slip away," said Johnson. "We have to play a little more under control and play to win."

The best Bulldog way to win so far has been simple: throw in a lot of three-pointers on one end and don't give up too much at the other goal. It's a formula as effective as entertaining, when it works. For all-season stats State ranks 3rd in SEC three-point shooting and second in made-treys; while defending foes at a 38% rate, second only to Kentucky this week. Central, literally, to that shooting defense is the league's best shot blocker in Jarvis Varnado, who has 105 swats so far. And his 9.6 boards-per is second only to Arkansas' Washington, though on the whole rebounding has been a sore point for State with the worst board-margin in the league.

Then again any liabilities on the glass can be offset by superior outside shooting. And nobody is doing it better than Johnson. The sophomore now ranks first in the NCAA by making 49.2% on his treys, 58 out of 118 to-date. In fact his arc accuracy is better than his rate on closer attempts.

"I knew I could shoot like this," Johnson said. "I've been shooting since high school and shooting real good." Johnson has moved into the MSU scoring lead at 13.0 points, as Varnado has slipped to 12.4. Stewart is the third Dog in double-digits at 10.8 points, though for a while all five starters were averaging 10.0 or better for SEC action.

Besides, averages don't really do justice to how Turner and point guard Dee Bost approach games. Some games they are content to set up their peers for points, and others they take the offensive burden upon themselves as did Turner at Kentucky. For his part Bost has found his groove as a play-maker more than a shot-taker, though he's learned not just how but when to hurt lax defenders with productive drives at the goal. With an average output he will get to 100 assists this weekend, only the fourth MSU freshman guard to reach that mark, and the rookie record of 129 is certainly within reach.

But the only records that these Dogs are paying much attention to are the overall and SEC marks. They have plenty reasons to expect success on the home court this Saturday, as well as one painful piece of evidence about how things can go wrong. After all, they bolted to a 25-12 lead last weekend only to lose both a game and a share of the West lead at the final horn. Fortunately, the Bulldogs did not let it linger into the next week, and they've gained some valuable self-assurance the hard way.

"I think it's good to have confidence," Stewart said. "But just maintain focus, how hard you have to play every game. That last game doesn't matter, the only thing that matters is Saturday afternoon."

Turner is a bit more general in outlook, after the examples of these last two weeks. "I believe what it says is even though we're young we have what it takes to win. We have that core right now and when we're playing form our core and our strengths we have what it takes."

NOTE: At Saturday's home game, the #52 jersey worn by all-time Bulldog great Bailey Howell will be formally honored. Though Mississippi State officially does not retire numbers, no Dog has donned those digits in the fifty seasons since Howell was winning All-America honors as the nation's top center.

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