By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Throughout Mississippi State’s bumpy, circuitous, occasionally thrilling path to the present, one quality keeps popping back up: resiliency.
After a bad loss at Alabama and the ensuing suspension of senior Ravern Johnson for what he tweeted about following the game, MSU won two in a row behind hobbled point guard Dee Bost.
Then came the collapse against Auburn, where State blew a 19-point lead in the second half. Next game out, the Bulldogs lost at Kentucky but played well, and followed that up with a convincing win over rival Ole Miss.
With all the challenges MSU has faced during the SEC schedule, perhaps none is greater than what lies ahead today. After a head-scratching 84-82 home loss to LSU – which had dropped 10 in a row coming in – MSU (14-13, 6-7 SEC) visits Tennessee today (5 p.m., ESPN) with Bost hobbled again, Johnson back in the starting lineup and a key player out with injury.
Bost has been playing with a strained Achilles’ tendon for the past three weeks, and also dealing with a tweaked hamstring he suffered at Kentucky. It’s affected his production: In the last two games, he’s made 4 of 19 shots, including 3 of 11 from 3-point range.
Bost, a junior, said the injuries have “somewhat” affected his play – more so the tendon – but his bigger concern is getting this team to find some consistency. It’s Bost who most embodies MSU’s resiliency, and he sounded the same tone Friday that he’s sounded during other tough times.
“Let it go,” Bost said. “Tough loss, and we know we’ve got to bounce back. We can’t keep it on our shoulder and go up there and get blown out. We’ve got to brush it off.”
MSU is playing without Jalen Steele, the freshman from Knoxville who started six games after Johnson was suspended. Steele suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee on Wednesday and is done for the season.
“He brought us a lot (of) scoring, defense and toughness,” Bost said.
Now Johnson, who averages a team-leading 17.0 points per game, is back in the starting lineup. He did well off the bench, particularly the last three games, when he averaged 17.3 points and shot 73.3 percent (11 of 15) from 3-point range.
“I think for the first time in his life he’s realized what a mistake he made,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said Monday of Johnson. “I really believe he’s learned some things, and he’s using it to help him now, not just as a basketball player but as a person.”
Vols have had challenges
Tennessee (17-11, 7-6) has had its own issues this season. Coach Bruce Pearl was suspended for the first eight SEC games for violating NCAA rules. The Volunteers won three in a row, then lost three in a row, beat South Carolina, fell at home to Georgia, then upset Vanderbilt on the road Tuesday by overcoming an 11-point second-half deficit.
A win today could help solidify Tennessee’s NCAA tournament résumé, but Bost doesn’t see MSU as being in a spoiler role. The Bulldogs still have their own designs on getting to the Big Dance via the SEC Tournament. They’re currently second in the Western Division, which would earn a first-round bye in the league tourney.
“We’re trying to help our chances, even though we’ve got to win the tournament to get in, probably,” Bost said. “The better the win is, especially at Tennessee, it’ll be a better win for us and will help us out as far as seeding.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571