State Opens Crucial Homestand Hosting Rebels

The topic can be hashed and slashed into every sort of perspective. For the man in charge, though, Mississippi State's pressing issues are as simple as essential. "My job is to try to get them better at what they're doing," Coach Rick Stansbury says. "Try to make more shots."

Right there is the key to how in just over two weeks Mississippi State has gone from pacesetter in the SEC West to third in the Division. Since beginning their league season with three wins, the Bulldogs (16-7, 4-4 SEC) have dropped four of the last five and now are trailing both Arkansas (5-3) and Ole Miss (5-4) midway of the conference campaign. All losses had this in common: State shot 38% or worse from the field, and they were on the road.

The latter issue is taken care of by scheduling, as Thursday night brings a rare three-game SEC home stand beginning with a 8:00 rematch with the Rebels. The shooting? Well, the Bulldogs themselves hope friendlier confines can help return some of their old touch.

"It's going to be great to be at home," center Jarvis Varnado said. "We all know what we need to do. Our defense has been fine, we just have to get better on the offensive end."

Maybe not even a whole lot better, the way Stansbury sees it. Simply a degree of improved efficiency shooting and scoring should suffice, given that all four SEC defeats have been decided by a shot or two at the key juncture. "There are three games that under 30 seconds to go it's a one-possession game, on the road," he notes. "That's what a fine line it is. I can't change a lot, I just have to find a way in that forty minutes to get us a few more plays for what we've got."

Because as of Monday what the Bulldog coach has got to work with had not changed, nor is Stansbury game-planning for any late additions to the roster. State will prepare for round-two with the Rebels using the same personnel that took a 80-75 victory in Oxford back on January 9. That was the SEC opener for both teams, and featured a second-half Bulldog rally led by PG Dee Bost's more aggressive play attacking the offensive goal while Varnado dominated the defensive rim.

"We know they're going to come in here looking for revenge," said Bost of the Rebels (17-6). "They're playing good, and even though we're kind of down we have to turn it around." Speaking of turnarounds, Ole Miss did that Saturday at home in spinning a huge first-half deficit into a key victory over Alabama. A good part of this UM roster was present, if not all playing, a year ago when Ole Miss scored a win in Humphrey Coliseum; their first in over a decade. This team should be even better.

"They give you a lot of challenges," Stansbury said. "They have great perimeter guys capable of making a lot of shots, and they've got great depth." State certainly got to see last year what then-rookie guard Terrico White could do, and the now-soph wants to put on a better show than his nine-point, one-trey day in Oxford against MSU last month. Chris Warren did get 15 points in the loss but was 5-of-17 shooting and shut down in the key stretches by bigger Bulldog guards Barry Stewart and Bost.

What makes these Rebels a tougher proposition though is an upgraded frontcourt. Senior Murphy Holloway and soph DeAundre Cranston are just the type of big bodies that take a toll on State's thin, both physically and numerically, frontcourt roster; and Terrance Henry has become a load of late. "He's really playing well for them," Stansbury said. And of course there is all-purpose Eniel Polynice to create matchup problems as needed. In round-one Bost was a step quicker than the 6-5 junior in that game-changing second half, but Stansbury knows Polynice will adjust for the rematch and be ready. "He's a tough, hard-nosed competitor that can really put that ball on that floor. And he's gotten better at finishing and is a much better shooter."

Bost finished with 25 points in the win, nine off the foul line. Equally key to the MSU comeback was timely use of zone defense. "They were caught off-guard," Varnado said. "Our guards stayed with the shooters, and everything in the lane was mine. And we were shooting the ball extremely well."

Which has become the proverbial rub for the Bulldogs since. After eight SEC games State is shooting just 38% overall and under 30% from the arc. The opposition is not a lot better (39.5%, 33.3%) but as Stansbury noted the line has been just that fine. Between them Bost and wing-guard Ravern Johnson are 21-of-81 on trey tries in SEC season. And while Varnado hasn't attempted anything from long range this year, his 43% shooting inside the lane through eight games is worrisome to say the least. Stansbury saw some encouraging signs for a half Saturday at Florida. "We were about as efficient as we needed to be on the road, both ways," he said. Then came the second half when too many attempts drew more iron than net, save for a couple of last-minute bombs from Stewart and Johnson that kept the outcome in question to the very end. Even then the coach thought his team had better balance in their shot selecting and ball movement on the whole.

"Defensively we've been pretty good every night, offensively we haven't always been that way," Stansbury said. "Our challenge is this, can you maintain all that for forty minutes? That's where oru problems lie and when you go to fix it you have problems."

The problem on top of the problem here is obvious enough: State has very limited lineup and matchup options due to the often-discussed and still-unresolved issues of depth. Stansbury can't be blamed for looking back to last winter when he had more and better choices. He is certainly recalling the difference it made.

"How many times last year we weren't playing our best but got some momentum and energy from the bench? That's what I can't do as well, and at some key positions: at the five, and at the one." Certainly there is no direct backup for Bost, other than giving designated defensive ace Stewart added quarterback duties or having Riley Benock handle the ball off the bench. There are two big bodies nominally backing up center Varnado, but not for long or even often any more. John Riek has played 12 minutes in five SEC games; Wendell Lewis eight minutes in four. That's not even one good game's breather for Varnado.

Don't expect a lot more duty for either rookie just yet, though. "Well, it's just very tough to put either one of them in there for extended minutes just because of lack of experience," Stansbury said. "As desperate as we are for post backup in there, it's just tough to put guys in that just don't have any understanding yet of what is going on." In fact State's real ‘rotation' in the post for now is pushing big forward Kodi Augustus down under the goal.

Of course playing his normal role, Augustus has had his own ups and downs; double-figures scored against Arkansas and Vanderbilt, with five- and four-point outings interspersed. The junior has made just one of his last 13 trey-tries too. Not that alternate Phil Turner has been much sharper, 3-of-12 at the arc in the last five games. So neither is giving the sort of offensive spark as a year ago. "And don't ask me why," Stansbury said.

"With our personnel we have to make shots. When we play small and Kodi and Phil haven't made shots, it makes it difficult. I can't change that and play big. But what we don't have and we're not getting, you can't worry about that. It's what we are. That's the reality of it."

The subject of Renardo Sidney's status did not come up during the afternoon media meeting, and Mississippi State's administration is not commenting though the University is known to not be appealing the NCAA's findings provided to MSU last week. Standard procedure would be a two-working-day response though this too can be interpreted as flexibly as many other aspects of the case.

For their part the Bulldogs are relieved the extended road-stretch is done and five of the remaining league games are at home. That in itself is an upgrade, if not in personnel at least in perspective. "We've still got confidence," Bost said. "We know in our hearts we can still win every game. We had a chance every game we played so far, we just have to keep working hard and change everything around."

"I think we're fine," said Varnado. Yes, he includes how State stands in post-season terms, too. That's a topic that comes to the fore mid-way of every league season and all the more so for this team at this particular moment. "We feel we're a tournament team," Varnado said, though adding, "Other people might not feel that, so we still need some big wins down the road."

Or better, here at home.

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