Hard to figure: In weakened league, surging Bulldogs have a shot

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – I know that Mississippi State has as good a chance as anybody at winning the SEC Tournament title. What I can’t figure out is the “why.”
Is it because the Bulldogs come a long way and finally started putting things together? Or is it because, on the whole, the SEC isn’t that good?
Is it a combination of both?
Ask coach Rick Stansbury, and he thinks it’s a sign of progress by his team, which has overcome quite a bit this season just to get the No. 2 seed from the Western Division seed and a first-round bye.
“Our guys have come a long way to put themselves in the position to have this opportunity. I think it says a lot for what they’ve done,” said Stansbury, whose Bulldogs play Thursday’s LSU-Vanderbilt winner in Friday’s quarterfinals.
MSU has won three games in a row, and two of those were road wins. So it’s hard to argue with Stansbury when he says his team is playing its best basketball of the season.
From what I’ve seen, that’s the case. Ravern Johnson can’t miss, Dee Bost is the best ball distributor in the league, and the bench play has improved dramatically, even with the recent loss of Jalen Steele to injury.
Renardo Sidney still hasn’t overly impressed anyone, and he’s not nearly where he should be, but he’s not hurting the Bulldogs as much as he was even two weeks ago.
Oh, and Kodi Augustus is a bona fide leader.
This is a team that’s undergone drastic personnel changes. It’s been up, it’s been down, but Stansbury doesn’t quite look at it that way.
“If I had my team from November on, November, December, then it’s ups and downs,” he said. “But when you get your team in January, you start off on a down, and it’s a gradual down until you can figure (it) out – having to learn all this and put it all together in SEC play. So you just start off differently.”
Parity reigns
MSU hopes to end differently than it started. State’s only path to the NCAA tournament is via an SEC Tournament championship. It’s the third consecutive year Stansbury has found himself in this situation, and he’s 1-1 so far.
I see no reason why MSU can’t win it, given the state of the league. I’m attempting the silly task of filling out a tourney bracket, and while you’ll have to visit my blog on Thursday morning to find out who I pick, I could make a really good case for MSU being the champ.
It’s 5-2 this season against the teams on its side of the bracket: Arkansas (2-0), Florida (1-0), LSU (1-1), Tennessee (1-0) and Vanderbilt (0-1). If the Bulldogs make it through to the title game, the likely opponent is Kentucky, which they lost to but played well against in Lexington.
Plus, MSU seems to always play the Wildcats tough.
While Stansbury – like any coach – won’t say the conference is down this season, he does see the parity. Asked about the possibility of first-round upsets, he said, “I don’t know what’s going to be constituted as an upset this year.”
He thinks Florida, the No. 1 seed from the East, has been the most consistent team, but then he pointed out that South Carolina (East No. 6) is the only SEC team to have won in Gainesville this season.
Little in the SEC this year has followed any sort of logical pattern, so it wouldn’t be crazy to say MSU can win it. Don’t forget, the Bulldogs beat Florida.
Past results mean nothing to Stansbury, unless you’re talking about the way his team has played the last few games.
“It’s a new season, and for us it becomes a three-game season over there,” he said. “I like the way our kids are heading into the SEC Tournament.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@journalinc.com.