Mississippi State did exactly what it needed to do: survive the SEC schedule and earn a first-round bye in this week’s SEC Tournament. That result is not good enough for some as MSU was chosen in the preseason to win the SEC West. That prediction was made based on the potential of this year’s squad. Would Renardo Sidney play like the McDonald’s All-American he was in high school? How would the team perform when Dee Bost returned from suspension? When it was all said and done, MSU finished 9-7 in conference, three games behind division winner Alabama. MSU played to its potential at times but also underperformed at critical moments this year. Losses to SEC West cellar dwellers Auburn and LSU put a sour taste in the mouths of the Bulldog faithful. However, the Bulldogs responded with wins against SEC champion Florida and won at Thompson-Boling Arena against Tennessee in Jack Cristil’s last radio broadcast as the voice of Mississippi State athletics. A lot of people are critical of Rick Stansbury when it comes to coaching, but he seems to shine during the SEC Tournament. As head coach, he has two championship trophies and two more finals appearances since taking over from Richard Williams in 1998. If history happens to repeat itself, MSU won’t win its quarterfinal game against the LSU/Vanderbilt winner. In 2002, MSU won the tourney, lost in the finals in 2003 and was bounced in the quarterfinals (with a first-round bye) in 2004. MSU won the tourney in 2009 and lost in the finals last season. However, the field could not have shaped up any better for the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs play its first game Friday against the LSU/Vanderbilt winner. MSU split the season series with the Tigers, but one bounce here and there could have turned the two matchups into sweeps in either team’s favor. MSU lost its only meeting with the Commodores this year, but was very much in the game. They made some crucial mistakes in the final minutes and let a winnable game slip from their fingers. Last year MSU proved that they could lose to Vandy mid-season and beat them when it matters most: in the SEC Tourney. It seems like a possibility again this season.
On the other half of MSU’s bracket sit three reams that MSU is a combined 4-0 this season. The Bulldogs swept the Razorbacks, defeated Tennessee on the road and upset the ranked Gators in Starkville. If the Bulldogs can play up to their full potential and get Sidney plenty of rest, MSU can cruise into the finals for a third straight year. Will it be that easy? Of course not, MSU has made the incredibly easy look impossible in athletics since 1878. But working in MSU’s favor is two seniors who have been on the wrong side of Stansbury. However, they have learned from the error of their ways and embraced their roles on the team. The result is Kodi Augustus averaging career-highs in points and rebounds and a rejuvenated Ravern Johnson after his suspension and benching. The national media (Andy Katz and Pat Forde in particular) may not like how Rick has handled this season, but he’s done wonders with the hand he was dealt and has his team in position to win two SEC Tourney titles in three years. The ride to this position has not been a smooth one, but the roads have settled. Stansbury and crew seem to make magic every SEC Tournament, and this year’s field is set for MSU to make more magic.
Last Thursday Mississippi State showcased the progress it made under second-year head coach Dan Mullen. ESPN showed the world how far we had come. At the end of the game, it was us coming up short again. MSU football has not been able to get over the proverbial hump quite yet. Mullen has made impressive strides in a short amount of time. We are no longer an automatic conference win but are from being the perennial doormat. Despite two early turnovers, we still had a chance to win the game on a last second drive. Besides the dropped passes, there is a lot to be optimistic about.
In the first half, Cam Newton had his way with the MSU defense, outgaining the Bulldog offense by himself 146-125. Manny Diaz and staff made critical adjustments on the fly and held Newton to only 82 yards (22 of those receiving) in the second half. The MSU defense dictated when Newton would scramble. Even more importantly, after giving up 17 first-half points the defense shut out the potent Tiger offense. When it was time to make a stand late in the game, the defense came through on 3rd down and the ensuing blocked field goal.
FLAGS, FLAGS, FLAGS
MSU only committed two penalties for 25 yards: a personal foul that was a bit of acting on Auburn’s part and an illegal block. The two penalties are a far cry from the 5.6 penalties per game MSU averaged a season ago. To date, MSU is only averaging 2.5 penalties and 27.5 penalty yards per game. Dan Mullen wants his team to give “relentless effort,” and his team is giving that effort while playing disciplined football.
NOT FOLDING JUST YET
In years past, when MSU would go down by a double-digit deficit, we would fold when given the opportunity to make a comeback. We lacked the offensive firepower to score points in a short period of time, and the defense would eventually break from being on the field too long. With Mullen learning the spread offense from Urban Meyer, the Bulldog offense has the ability to march up the field gaining huge chunks of yards at a time. Coupled with Diaz’s high-risk, high-reward defense, MSU can put points on the board in a hurry.
There are still some minor details we need to work on to become more consistent. We have been here before: where the MSU fan base thinks we are ready to make the leap into the next tier of SEC schools. When we get there, we usually take two steps in the wrong direction. If not this season, next season will definitely be the year MSU causes major hell for the other teams in the conference. That is the beauty of playing in the best conference in the country: every week is a chance to score a major upset and get the momentum that can carry you through the rest of the season.
Today, I try to look in my crystal ball and predict this season’s Eastern and Western division champions.
How the media voted at SEC Media Days:
Eastern Division (First Place Votes)
1. Florida(153) – 1030
2. Georgia(15) – 791
3. South Carolina(8) – 790
4. Kentucky – 462
5. Tennessee – 450
6. Vanderbilt(1) – 194
Western Division (First Place Votes)
1. Alabama(157) – 1034
2. Arkansas(6) – 726
3. Auburn(10) – 691
4. LSU(1) – 653
5. Mississippi State – 320
6. Ole Miss(3) – 293
SEC Champion: Alabama (143), Florida (17), Auburn (7), Arkansas (3), Ole Miss (2), Georgia (2), LSU (1), South Carolina (1), Kentucky (1).
How I see things shaping up.
1. Florida – 11-1 (7-1)
2. South Carolina – 9-3 (5-3)
3. Georgia – 7-5 (4-4)
4. Kentucky – 6-6 (2-6)
5. Tennessee – 5-7 (2-6)
6. Vanderbilt – 1-11 (0-8)
1. Alabama – 11-1 (7-1)
2. Arkansas – 10-2 (6-2)
3. Auburn – 9-3 (5-3)
4. LSU – 6-6 (4-4)
5. Mississippi State – 7-5 (4-4)
6. Ole Miss – 6-6 (2-6)
SEC Champion: Alabama – The loss of so many defensive starters concern me. If the Tide can stay healthy throughout the season, the defense will have had enough games under their belt to not crumple under the pressure of the Georgia Dome lights.
The 2010 SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament kicks off in less than 12 hours. Will Kentucky add a tournament championship to its regular-season championship? Will Mississippi State repeat? Will another team make it four games in four days for the third year in a row?
(E5) South Carolina vs. (W4) Alabama – The eastern division utterly dominated the west this season. I expect that trend to continue in the tournament. This game could be the rare exception. South Carolina goes how Devan Downey goes. When he is on, the Gamecocks can hang with any team in the conference, as evident by their win over Kentucky. Alabama will bring that defensive toughness that can get you far in the tourney. Will the Tide be able to slow down Downey? Winner: Alabama
(W6) LSU vs. (E3) Tennessee – LSU was the worst team in the SEC this season. Bruce Pearl will turn up the defense in an attempt to put the game out of reach early. Trent Johnson will work a slow, methodical pace to hide his lack of depth. In the end, Tennessee wins easily. Winner: Tennessee
(W5) Auburn vs. (E4) Florida – Auburn’s play is a bit unpredictable at times. It is a mystery which team will show up. Florida is not quite on the bubble, but they can’t afford to give the selection committee a reason to not put the Gators in the field of 65. Winner: Florida
(E6) Georgia vs. (W3) Arkansas – Arkansas got off to a slow start but came around when Courtney Fortson joined the team. Georgia is the best 6-seed in the history of the tournament, even better than the 2008 team that won it all. They’ve beaten Tennessee, Illinois, and Georgia Tech. Arkansas cannot afford to bring anything less than 100%. Winner: Arkansas
(W4) Alabama vs. (E1) Kentucky – Kentucky is head-and-shoulders better than everyone on its side of the bracket except for Tennessee. John Calipari is in unfamiliar territory. The SEC tournament is a different kind of beast. He was able to dominate the Conference USA tournaments. He will get Alabama’s best shot but should be able to win convincingly if he keeps his freshman-laden team focused. Winner: Kentucky
(E3) Tennessee vs. (W2) Ole Miss – Andy Kennedy has proven he can put talented teams on the court. He has not proven he can win when it counts, in conference play and in the conference tournament. Ole Miss has the talent to knock off Tennessee, but the Rebels lack the clutch in the coaching department to make a run for the tournament crown. Winner: Tennessee
(E4) Florida vs. (W1) Mississippi State – Mississippi State showed it can play with every team in the SEC until the debacle on Senior Day against Tennessee. The Bulldogs lost to Florida by 9 in Gainesville. On a neutral site, MSU should be able to close that scoring gap and come away with a win. Winner: Mississippi State
(W3) Arkansas vs. (E2) Vanderbilt – Kevin Stallings, 2010 SEC Coach of the Year, has done a masterful job with a Vanderbilt team that did not make the NCAA Tournament last season. He took the same squad, and in one year’s time, turned them into a true threat to make a deep run in the Big Dance. Arkansas can score, but will they be able to be as efficient as Vandy? Winner: Vanderbilt
(E3) Tennessee vs. (E1) Kentucky – Kentucky will be looking to get some revenge from their last meeting, which Tennessee won. Each team won on its home floor. In a neutral-site game, I go with the team with more talent. That team is Kentucky. In addition to having more talent, UK will only have one game of fatigue on them as compared to UT’s two games. Winner: Kentucky
(E2) Vanderbilt vs. (W1) Mississippi State – In their previous meeting, Mississippi State shot the ball horrendously from three, but still found a way to be in the game and lose by only three points. Barring foul troule and another poor shooting night, MSU should be able to come out on the winning end. Winner: Mississippi State
(W1) Mississippi State vs. (E1) Kentucky – It took overtime and some very questionable officiating for Kentucky to leave the Humphrey Coliseum with a win February 16. Neither team played their absolute best on that evening, but Kentucky was able to utilize its height and length advantage to out-block MSU. Kentucky is the better team overall, but the winner will be the better team for those 40 minutes. Winner: Kentucky
I have reached that point as a MSU fan where losing close games we should win do not even bother me anymore. After last night’s game where I saw MSU lose a seven-point lead in a span of two minutes and melt in overtime, I stayed calm and content. After losses like that, I am usually sulking for about an hour. Officiating was horrible, and I was not yelling at the TV like I used to. I put the loss behind me before the game was officially over. What pissed me off more than anything was the action of a few fans in attendance. I understand the frustrations with the officials, but why would you embarrass your university…MY alma mater…on primetime national TV? Everything was set up perfectly to be a good night: record crowd, people actually wearing the shirts provided, the no. 2 team in the nation coming to town and an outstanding game. And all that gets overshadowed because a few drunken frat boys want to throw cups and bottles onto the floor. The thousands of phone calls and texts DeMarcus Cousins received from our fans gives us another black eye. One of the biggest games in recent MSU history, and idiotic fans want to make themselves bigger than the game they were not even playing.
Now that I’m off my soap box, the Kentucky game was a big must-win for the Bulldogs, and they lost it. They needed this win to improve a lackluster tournament resume. MSU has an RPI of 62 and can’t afford anymore bad losses the rest of the way if they want the NCAA Selection Committee to even bat an eye at them. MSU received the worst compliment any team could receive. Scoop Jackson called MSU a team that plays up (or down) to its competition. It is definitely hard to argue that fact. After eight losses, only one of them is by double-digit points. That one loss was a season-opening game against Rider, a team MSU refused to take seriously. Every other game either won or lost by less than 10 points were either won or lost in the final two minutes. If MSU wants to make a serious run at getting back on the bubble, they have to win out and beat at least one of the big three of the east in the SEC tourney. With the loss, MSU drops into second place in the west. They can still win the west because Arkansas has a tougher finishing schedule. They have Vandy, at Tennessee and Ole Miss left, and MSU has to go to South Carolina and a season finale at home against Tennessee. MSU’s NCAA tourney lives are in their hands at this point. The Bulldogs had their gut-check moment last season after a home loss to Auburn. Then they won out in the regular season and rode the momentum to a SEC tourney crown. Will they use this loss as a wake-up call? They have to. The leading scorer Ravern Johnson did not play. Jarvis Varnado was ineffective due to foul trouble. Even with all that going against them, they still take the country’s second-ranked team to overtime. There are no more excuses for this team from this point on. I’m trying to stay hopeful for the Dawgs, but anymore losses could give them a number-one seed, in the NIT.
at Vanderbilt (16-4, 5-1) 2/3/10 @ 7pm (SEC Network)
Last Season – W, 73-66 (in Starkville)
Last MSU win in Nashville – February 28, 2004, 72-69
Outside of Rupp Arena, Vandy’s Memorial Gymnasium is the toughest place to play in the SEC. The design and the benches being on the baselines seem to rattle teams. The fact that Vanderbilt is usually unbeatable complicates things for opposing teams. Vandy has lost only four games at home dating back to the 2007-08 season. MSU had a chance to win in Nashville in that ’08 season, but Shan Foster decided to go into sniper mode and shoot the cover off the ball. I said earlier MSU would win at Vandy, and I still think they will. The shooters are coming out of a slump somewhat. The three is not falling as frequent as it has in earlier games this season, but with as many as they take they will make enough to stay in the game.
The key for success, as always for the Bulldogs, is to keep turnovers to a minimum. In four of State’s five losses, they have lost the turnover battle. Jarvis Varnado has to put in more work than usual against Vandy, banging against 6-foot-11, 250 pound A.J. Ogilvy and his 6-11, 255 pound backup Festus Ezeli. Varnado has been able to contain Ogilvy in past match-ups, and neither Ogilvy nor Ezeli will be dominant factors if Varnado can stay out of foul trouble. Stansbury has been playing Kodi Augustus at center for a little bit trying to give Varnado some rest. Varnado is averaging 30 minutes-per-game and has logged over 32 minutes in every conference game. Barry Stewart will defend John Jenkins or Jeffrey Taylor, both averaging over 10 PPG. Stewart has done a great job defending the other team’s go-to guards this season.
at Florida (15-6, 4-3) 2/6/10 @ 12:30 pm (SEC Network)
Last Season – W, 80-71 (in Starkville)
Last MSU win in Gainesville – March 1, 2008, 68-59
Just like Mississippi State, Florida has been hard to figure out this season. The Gators have the marquee win over Michigan State at a neutral site, but needed a hail mary to beat a North Carolina State team that is near the bottom of the ACC and lost to South Alabama at home and Richmond. I said MSU would lose to Florida, but it depends on which MSU team decides to show up to the O’Connell Center. Florida’s three SEC losses are from teams ahead of them in the standings: Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Their wins are against Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and LSU, teams MSU has beaten at least once with the exception of South Carolina. So if MSU plays like the team it is fully capable of, winning this game should not be an issue. But if the Dogs cannot put together the complete effort: shooting, defense, rebounding, and more importantly not letting one player take over a game, expect a loss to the Gators.
The Gators are led by two outstanding young guards, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton. Boynton leads the team in scoring and is second in assists. Walker is second in scoring and first in assists. They have length inside with Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons. Augustus is the best player on the team when he is on his game, but Ravern Johnson is built to pose a match-up problem for Florida. He can shoot over the short guards and can put the ball on the floor past the taller but slower forwards. He’s been in a three-point shooting slump as of late, but he has found other ways to score. His added versatility makes him that much harder to defend, especially when he is hot from behind the arc. Varnado is always going to find a way to get his points, whether it is from the free throw line, grabbing loose rebounds or having an efficient post offense. MSU needs more quality wins if they are to make Selection Sunday a little less nerve racking. This week is the perfect week to do that.
at Arkansas (8-11, 1-3) 1/27/10 @ 8pm (ESPN2)
This season: W 82-80 in Starkville (1/14/10)
The Dogs are in the second of their four road games in a five-game span. After a tough loss in Tuscaloosa, they head to Fayetteville for the second game against the Razorbacks. Since the last time these two teams met, the Hogs defeated Alabama, lost small to Florida and lost big to Kentucky. Courtney Fortson is getting into a groove now, averaging more than 17 PPG and over 7 assists a game. Arkansas is still led in scoring by Rotnei Clarke at 18 PPG. In the last contest, Barry Stewart held Clarke to 2-9 shooting, 2-7 from three and did not send him to the free throw line. The bigger issue for the Dogs is letting the big lead slip away. MSU was up by 19 on Arkansas halfway through the first half but still only managed to win by two even with Jarvis Varnado’s triple-double and 20 points from Dee Bost. MSU had a poor shooting afternoon against Alabama, and it would be hard to believe they will shoot 11 percent from three in two consecutive games. I see another hard-fought win for MSU on the road as they get back on the right track.
LSU (9-11, 0-6) 1/29/10 @ 12:30 (SEC Network)
Last season: L, 81-57 in Baton Rogue, L, 97-94 (2OT) in Starkville, W, 67-57 SEC Tournament semifinals
Last win in Baton Rogue: January 9, 2008 (61-39)
To say LSU has struggled this season is an understatement. They have been in position to win some conference games but have not been able to pull it off. They are coming off a loss by 19 to Alabama where the game was tied with 15 minutes to go in the game. Alabama is seventh in the league in three-point percentage but managed to shoot 52 percent against the Tigers. MSU, even after the poor shooting performance against Alabama, still shoots the three at almost 40 percent on the year, leading the SEC. The Tigers are led by Bo Spencer, Storm Warren and Tasmin Mitchell, accounting for 71 percent of the team’s offense. At this point of the season, Trent Johnson and crew are looking for something positive to build on. The only advantage LSU has against MSU will be having one more day to prepare than MSU since the Dogs are playing on Thursday night. That’s about as far as it goes.
The Bulldogs (15-3, 3-0 SEC) leave the friendly confines of the Humphrey Coliseum for a 90-mile drive to Tuscaloosa to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide.
at Alabama (11-7, 1-3) 1/23/10 @ 11am (CBS)
Last Season – in Starkville, W 83-74; in Tuscaloosa, L 87-85 (2OT)
Last MSU win in Tuscaloosa – January 19, 2008, 66-56
The Tide is sputtering right now in the opening stages of conference play but should not be taken lightly, especially when playing Mississippi State. The Tide have had their hearts broken plenty of times this season, allowing come-from-behind wins from Vanderbilt and then-unbeaten Purdue. They got up early on Tennessee but lacked the offensive potency to keep the shorthanded Vols down, eventually falling 63-56. Anthony Grant will have Alabama back in the NCAA Tournament before long, but for right now their role is spoiler. Coming from Virginia Commonwealth, Grant definitely knows about playing spoiler, upsetting Duke in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. He has also been an assistant under Billy Donovan at Marshall and at Florida. The Tide does, however, have a pretty formidable inside-outside duo in JaMychal Green and Mikhail Torrance and get key numbers from Senario Hillman and Tony Mitchell.
Rick Stansbury’s teams always find away to lose a game they should win pretty easily, and I have one of those gut feelings that it might happen Saturday. They have earned every SEC victory they have so far this season, but they could have made things a bit easier on themselves. They led by 19 before winning narrowly by 2 against Arkansas and needed a late rally and defensive stand to hold off Georgia. Alabama is not what they were in the early 2000s, but they always play MSU tough. Anything less than a complete 40-minute effort and MSU will be leaving Coleman Coliseum with a loss.