By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
The SEC’s coaches believe Mississippi State has the talent to make a deep run in the SEC Tournament, but it’s hard to run on tired legs.
That could be the biggest issue for the Bulldogs (21-10) in New Orleans this week. They face Georgia (14-16) in the first round on Thursday, and it would take four wins in as many days to capture the tourney title.
MSU did that three years ago to earn an NCAA tournament berth. It might not take winning it all to get an at-large bid this time, but two or three wins might be needed.
This year’s squad doesn’t have near the depth the 2009 team did.
“Do you really try to push early in the week to get better conditioning, or do you back off just to try to save your energy?” MSU assistant coach Phil Cunningham said Monday. “I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer. We’ll prepare like normal. We’re just going to prepare for the Georgia game and not worry about after that.”
Depth has been a problem most of the season for State, more so lately with the injury to freshman guard Rodney Hood. He was hurt in the Kentucky game, missed the next game, and has come off the bench in the wins over South Carolina and Arkansas.
He totaled 34 minutes those two games, recording eight points and five rebounds.
“We thought he’d be a little further along on Saturday than he was and just hoping that he can heal up a little better this week,” Cunningham said.
Praise from rivals
If MSU can solve the depth problem, it could win the whole thing. That’s the collective sentiment of the league’s other coaches, including Georgia’s Mark Fox.
“They’re a challenging team to prepare for, because they’re pretty complete,” Fox said. “They may not be the deepest team in the conference, but they might be the second-most talented team when you just look at starting five versus starting five.”
The favorite to win the tournament is, of course, No. 1-ranked Kentucky. But coach John Calipari praised the depth of the league, and he well remembers trailing by 13 points at halftime to MSU on Feb. 21 in Starkville. Kentucky won, 73-64.
“There’s no one wanting to play them now, either,” Calipari said. “The ball’s dropped, and you look up and you’re playing Mississippi State, or they’re in your little pocket of four, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope they get beat before we have to play them.’”
One extra intangible MSU brings to New Orleans: Confidence. It was sorely lacking during a five-game losing skid, but it’s been restored with these last two victories.
“We had a look about us, a body language and attitude that was different than obviously it had been in the past couple of weeks,” Cunningham said. “It really displayed itself on the court as well. So we’ve got some confidence now.”