OPINION: The minutes are piling up

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Don’t believe the standings or the stats or any of the league’s coaches.
These are desperate times for Mississippi State basketball.
Big picture, the Bulldogs will be fine. I’m talking about right now, this season, this week.
Sure, they’re 15-4 overall and lead the SEC’s Western Division with a 3-1 mark.
But if you read my story on Tuesday, and if you’ve watched MSU’s league games, you know that these guys are going to be zombies by season’s end. The team’s three best players – Dee Bost, Barry Stewart and Jarvis Varnado – are all averaging more than 36 minutes per game in SEC play.
Last season in conference games, Bost averaged 34.1 minutes, Stewart 34.2, and Varnado 29.1.
Why all the minutes? Because they’re so good? Partly, but mostly because they have no true backups, thanks to injuries and the Renardo Sidney vs. NCAA debacle. I mean, Stewart is backing up Bost. Starters aren’t supposed to back up starters.
In Saturday’s loss to Alabama, fatigue was a factor, and it will continue to be.
And there’s not a whole lot coach Rick Stansbury can do about it.
The only option he’s got in the backcourt is playing junior reserve Riley Benock more minutes, but he seems to have developed a phobia of shooting, so that’s iffy.
As for Varnado, Stansbury listed three options:
– Play freshmen Wendell Lewis and John Riek more, even though they’re nowhere close to ready for heavy minutes in the SEC.
– Hope Sidney gets cleared to play soon. I’d say you’re better off hoping for snow in Mississippi in mid-August.
– Move Kodi Augustus from the four spot to the five when Varnado sits. Augustus is a lean 6-foot-8 kid who can score inside and out and could present matchup problems. But again, a starter backing up a starter.

Tough times ahead?
So, all that to say that this could be a very tough week for MSU. First is a trip to Arkansas on Thursday, then back home Saturday for LSU. State should win both, but with its total lack of depth, there are no guarantees.
I still believe this is a team that is good enough to go a long way this season – when it has most of its parts. It’s missing half its engine right now, though, and I don’t know how long the Bulldogs can hold off Ole Miss in the West.
MSU is at its best when it comes out guns blazing. When those 3-pointers are falling and Varnado is having his way in the post, they’re a Sweet 16 team – or better.
But against Bama, State shot 11.1 percent from deep. It’s been out-rebounded the last two games. The Tide was forcing guys like Romero Osby, a 6-8 forward, to bring the ball up the court (hello, turnover).
As with any team, if you can upset the Bulldogs’ rhythm and set the tempo, you can beat them. That’s becoming easier to do these days, and if the trend continues, it could be a long rest of the season.
MSU needs answers. Right now, there are none.

Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com.