Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, on Jan. 24: “They’ve got experience, they’ve got talent, so I don’t know what else you can ask for.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan, on Jan. 27: “I think that if you speak to most of the coaches in the league that they would say their starting five is as talented, as gifted as any starting five in this league. Those five guys are an explosive offensive team.”
Donovan, on Jan. 29: “I think their biggest dilemma is they have a lot of individual talent. But talent doesn’t always win.”
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, on Feb. 16: “Mississippi State has a very talented team. Their five starters are as good as anybody’s in this league.”
As the above comments testify, there is little debate that Mississippi State’s basketball team has talent. In fact, if you were to rate the league’s starting fives strictly on level of talent, I think MSU would be in the top three or four.
But Donovan’s second comment said it all: Talent ain’t everything. And it’s certainly not been enough for MSU to overcome myriad off-court issues and the unsteady play of guys like Ravern Johnson and Renardo Sidney.
Johnson, who missed two games earlier this month to suspension, can still be a productive citizen for this team, even if it’s off the bench. He scored 21 points against Kentucky in a reserve role, and the play of freshman Jalen Steele would indicate that Johnson’s role will remain as such.
The biggest self-imposed obstacle for the Bulldogs is Sidney. His defense is shoddy – perhaps because he’s afraid of picking up fouls – and while he’s averaging a double-double over his last four games (12.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg), he’s hardly overwhelmed opponents. Sidney still takes some ill-advised jumpers, and he’s just 3 of 16 from 3-point range.
He’s not taken more than three free throws in any of the last five games. Earlier this week, Kennedy didn’t really want to address Sidney’s issues, but you can probably guess what word he used.
“I think he’s big and he’s talented. I’m not one to speak on anything other than he’s a very difficult matchup, and he played very well against us the first time, as did Dee Bost, who I think is one of the most difficult people in our league to guard. Ravern Johnson, if you allow him to catch and shoot, is as good as anybody in our league.”
MSU (13-12, 5-6 SEC) hosts Ole Miss (17-9, 5-6) on Saturday.
Bost has the best combination of talent, experience and heart for the Bulldogs. Unfortunately, it’s not enough for everybody. A lot of folks have shut down Johnson’s catch-and-shoot game; Kodi Augustus is averaging just 4.9 rebounds over his last nine games; Sidney is still trying to figure out just what it takes to excel at this level; Riley Benock gives you defense and hustle, but not much scoring; and Steele, talented as he is, shouldn’t be burdened with the pressure of having to notch double digits every night.
Bost has had his own issues, namely turnovers. He’s committed 23 over the last five games.
What can help this team find a little consistency is focusing on the positives. That’s what helped the Bulldogs shake off the Auburn debacle, and it’s what was being harped on after Kentucky.
“We definitely realize that our team is better than we were the whole year,” Steele said. “We’re coming together much more every game, and I think it’s going to pan out at the end of the year, and hopefully it goes into (the) SEC (Tournament).”
The tournament would be a good time for State to have its talent all going in one direction. Then it could truly prove those coaches correct.