A trip from one end of the country to the other could go a long way toward determining where Mississippi State lands come NCAA tournament time.
March might seem a long way off, but for the Bulldogs (5-2), their next two games could loom large when the NCAA’s Big Dance begins.
At 5:30 p.m. today, MSU battles DePaul at the SEC/Big East Invitational in Tampa, Fla. – site of State’s SEC Tournament run last season – and then it’s a long trip to Anaheim, Calif., for a 3:30 p.m. Saturday tilt against UCLA in the Wooden Classic.
“For the big picture, it’s going to be very important,” senior guard Barry Stewart said. “We haven’t got any just quality wins thus far, so I think going down there and beating DePaul and beating UCLA would be good for the program.”
Winning those games could burnish a postseason résumé that has a couple of blotches with losses to Rider and Richmond. And it could restore the luster to a team that started the season ranked No. 18 in the country.
“When it comes down to the end of the year, having wins against UCLA and DePaul always looks good when you’re trying to get into the NCAA tournament,” senior center Jarvis Varnado said.
The question now becomes, how will MSU go about winning these games? Last season, injuries forced coach Rick Stansbury to go to a four-guard lineup in December, and it took a while for the Bulldogs to become comfortable with it.
Injuries have struck again, and so the Bulldogs again are trying to figure out just who they are. To wit:
– MSU is not as deep in the post as it expected to be, with Elgin Bailey severely limited by an ankle injury and freshman Renardo Sidney still awaiting NCAA clearance.
– Reserve guard Twany Beckham is out for the season after preseason hip surgery, meaning Stewart has to slide from the two guard to the point when Dee Bost, who’s a bit banged up himself, takes a seat.
– Reserve Riley Benock (foot) is slowly becoming more effective but still isn’t 100 percent.
– On top of all that, promising freshman Shaun Smith might miss the entire season with a hip injury.
“Every team has to find their identity – what they’re going to do, what they’re going to be,” sophomore reserve forward Romero Osby said. “Are they going to be a defensive team, are they going to be a 3-point shooting team, are they going to be a post team? So I think, yeah, we’re trying to just make our way and find our identity.
“I think we’re close to it.”
MSU got a little closer in its last game, a 105-53 trouncing of St. Bonaventure on Saturday. The Bulldogs played shut-down defense, got easy transition buckets, and were on fire from behind the 3-point line.
Varnado, who’s playing with a dislocated pinkie on his non-shooting hand, was effective despite limited playing time. He’ll be needed on this road trip, but more important is making sure the cohesiveness State found against St. Bonaventure was not just a one-time thing.
“I think we pretty much know what we’re going to do and how we need to win,” junior guard Phil Turner said. “We just need to pick our effort up and our intensity and our energy; I think we’ll be fine. Right now we’re in a pretty good spot.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal