By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
BATON ROUGE – The SEC road has been a daunting place to find victories, much less solutions. Mississippi State must find both this week.
The Bulldogs (19-6, 6-4 SEC), which dropped out of the latest Associated Press poll following Saturday’s home loss to Georgia, begin a tough road stretch today with a visit to LSU (14-10. 4-6). Four of MSU’s next five games are on the road.
What MSU needs to figure out is how to play better defense. In SEC games, it ranks 11th in scoring defense (71.8 points per game), 10th in field goal percentage defense (46.3) and last in 3-point defense (41.6).
“We all try to find the answer to why we’re playing defense so bad,” senior point guard Dee Bost said. “We really don’t know right now. Like I said, everybody’s just got to take pride in stopping their man and make sure their man don’t score. Together as a team we’ve got to help each other.”
Coach Rick Stansbury said he’s employed a zone defense less often than last season, and MSU has consequently struggled defending ball screens.
“We’ve got to make our mind up, do we want to get better at it or not,” Bost said.
LSU is hardly an offensive juggernaut. It’s averaging 64.3 ppg in league play while shooting 28.8 percent from 3-point range. The Tigers made 11 of 21 from deep the first time these teams met – a 76-71 MSU win on Jan. 25 – but are 8 of 54 since.
But LSU has freshman forward Johnny O’Bryant finding his groove. He returned from an injury in that first meeting, and now he’s in the starting lineup. He had 17 points and nine rebounds in Saturday’s win over a short-handed Alabama team.
“He’s playing well offensively, he’s starting to play better defensively, and he’s continuing to improve as we move forward,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said.
The Tigers are 4-1 in SEC home games, while MSU is 1-3 in league road games. That follows this season’s trend.
“If you went on the road and that team you played wasn’t very good, the crowd wouldn’t be a factor,” Stansbury said. “But the one constant when you go on the road: Everybody’s good.”
An extra obstacle for State could be fatigue. The Bulldogs lost to Georgia two days after beating rival Ole Miss, and Stansbury said fatigue had a “huge impact” on Saturday’s game.
Now, with another fairly quick turnaround, MSU will have to make sure tired legs don’t hinder the defense, which Stansbury thinks has been the case late in the second half of some games.
Otherwise, State’s postseason résumé could start looking less attractive. Bost said he understands how important these next two games are in the bigger picture, and Saturday’s loss could serve as motivation to get things fixed and finish strong.
“People don’t want to feel like that no more,” Bost said. “Our team, everybody was kind of down. We don’t want that feeling, so we’ve got to go out there and give it a lot of effort.”
The fatigue factor could be lessened if DeVille Smith is able to return to the lineup. The freshman, who backs up Bost, has been dressed out the last two games and is with the team in Baton Rouge.
But Smith hasn’t played since Jan. 18, having been hospitalized with dizziness, headaches and memory loss.
“It may be a situation we try to work him back here somehow,” Stansbury said. “Last week wasn’t a good situation, wasn’t good timing.”