Bulldogs ponder defensive woes

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

AUBURN, Ala. – Rick Stansbury has long been a proponent of man defense, and he’s leery of employing a standard 2-3 zone. He might have to compromise a bit today.
His Mississippi State team visits Auburn for a 7 p.m. tilt, two weeks after a shootout in Starkville that the Bulldogs won despite a poor defensive effort. It was a 91-88 final, with Auburn well exceeding its season scoring average.
Varez Ward has a lot to do with that. The backup point guard notched 24 points and five assists off the bench. He also shot 12 of Auburn’s 36 free throws.
“We’ve got to eliminate that to have a chance to win on the road,” Stansbury said. “His penetration is something we’ve got to guard.”
Question is, how will MSU guard it? Keeping quick guards like Ward out of the paint has been a constant source of frustration for State. On Tuesday, Anthony Hickey hit a driving layup to lift LSU to an overtime win over the Bulldogs.
MSU point guard Dee Bost got picked high on the play, and there was no help defense. Playing zone could make defending on-ball screens a little easier, but there can be drawbacks.
“The ball-screen defense, you take the chance turning people loose on the offensive boards. That’s your give or take,” Stansbury said.
Gun shy
MSU hasn’t played zone since Jan. 18, when it lost at Ole Miss. The Rebels dominated on the glass, with Reggie Buckner recording 15 rebounds.
That’s made Stansbury a little gun shy about playing zone. But with a couple of banged-up forwards – Arnett Moultrie (shoulder) and Renardo Sidney (back) are expected to play – MSU could find itself limited in the frontcourt. That might force Stansbury’s hand.
It could also help with fatigue, which Stansbury cited as a problem in the LSU loss.
“We were walking back up the court offensively, just trying to get our breath,” he said.
Since its loss in Starkville, Auburn has fallen to Alabama (68-50) and Ole Miss (61-54), then did not play a midweek game. After the Bama loss, coach Tony Barbee decided he needed more toughness out of his team, so he revisited some of his preseason “toughness drills,” and he thought that paid some dividends against Ole Miss.
“Where I thought my team had gotten and had understood the level of physicality and toughness you’ve got to play with to be successful, we had lost that for about a three-game stretch,” Barbee said.
For MSU, it’s more a question of mental toughness right now. The Bulldogs are 1-4 in SEC road games, and while Stansbury said he doesn’t think going on the road poses a mental obstacle to his team, it’s clear that something has to change.
There are five games left in the regular season, and for State, three of them are on the road.
“We were mentally ready to play down at LSU. We were ready to play,” Stansbury said. “We played pretty good for the most part. Just one play here and we’re not having this conversation.”
brad.locke@journalinc.com