By Paul Jones/Special to the Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State finds itself in the same situation it faced at the beginning of the season.
Tied atop the SEC Western Division standings.
Of course, with just four games left on the regular-season schedule, being tied now holds more importance.
MSU (19-8 and 7-5 in the SEC) seeks to maintain pace with co-West leader Arkansas tonight when the Bulldogs host Alabama (14-12, 4-8).
Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. at Humphrey Coliseum and will be televised by CSS.
“This time of year everything gets magnified a little bit,” said MSU coach Rick Stansbury, who has captured four West titles in 12 years. “But you don’t have to go over much. Everybody knows where you are at. We don’t talk much about where we are at but we do talk about the plus one and minus one stuff – road wins, home wins, road losses and those kind of things. We kinda keep that in perspective through 16 games.
“It’s about survival through 16 games.”
Concerning the big picture, the Bulldogs are considered a “bubble team” for the NCAA Tournament. February is normally a month for checking RPIs and strength of schedule and the remaining schedule.
MSU closes the regular season with home games against Alabama and Tennessee, sandwiched around road trips to South Carolina and Auburn.
While numbers and “bracketology” can get complicated at times, the Bulldogs are adopting simple formula to aid their postseason chances.
“From now on, we need to win every game,” said MSU sophomore Romero Osby, who has started the last two games in place of Ravern Johnson. “That is the first thing we look at. We have to come to play every day and if we defend, we always have a chance. I want to win the West and you want to win as many championships as you can. I never got a chance to win a championship in high school so those rings look good on your fingers.
“But I want to be the first with Coach Stansbury to make a Sweet 16 and beyond. That is what my focus is and that is what the team’s focus is.”
Osby or Johnson?
In State’s last two games, Osby drew the starting nod over Johnson, who was suspended for the Kentucky game. In the Bulldogs’ win Saturday at LSU, Johnson came off the bench and scored 16 points in 26 minutes.
Stansbury noted he has yet to decide if Osby or Johnson will be among the starting five tonight against the Tide.
“I really haven’t given it a lot of thought,” said Stansbury. “We’ll wait and see how we roll out the next two days. I don’t think it matters a lot. Ray came off the bench and played a bunch of minutes at LSU and made some shots against them.
“That’s a change and was different but we will see. They will both play.”
In their earlier meeting with Alabama, the Bulldogs shot just 31 percent overall and made just two 3-pointers in a 62-57 loss on January 23. MSU also struggled against Alabama’s full-court pressure and the Tide’s attempts to keep point guard Dee Bost from handing the ball.
“I’m expecting probably the same things,” Stansbury said of Alabama’s pressure on Bost. “It’s not quite as easy to do it away from home as it is at home. But I’m sure they will try to do some of the same things.”