By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings figures that at some point, it’s all going to come together for Mississippi State. So he’s preparing as if that will happen tonight.
Stallings’ No. 19-ranked Commodores (14-4, 2-2 SEC) visit MSU (10-8, 2-2) at 6 p.m. in an ESPN2 game. The Bulldogs are coming off an 86-64 loss at Georgia on Saturday, but Stallings is sticking with his original analysis of State.
“They have had games where they’ve looked absolutely awesome,” he said. “I said on media day back in October than I thought they would have a chance to win the league, so that’s what I’ve thought of them. I haven’t come off that.”
The Western Division title is hardly out of reach for MSU. Alabama is 4-1 and has already beaten the Bulldogs, but they get another crack at the Crimson Tide next week.
Winning tonight and on Saturday against No. 24 Florida would get the season right back on track. Both games are at home, which to MSU coach Rick Stansbury heightens the magnitude of each.
“You’ve got to find ways to protect your home court,” Stansbury said. “That’s something you’ve got to be able to do, I don’t care who’s coming in here. Unfortunately we’ve got a very, very good team in Vanderbilt.”
Finding a consistent cohesion has been MSU’s biggest problem. Point guard Dee Bost is playing well four games into his return from academic and NCAA suspensions, but Renardo Sidney has more often than not looked lost or indifferent.
In the six games he’s played this season after serving his NCAA suspension – plus a couple of team suspensions – Sidney has averaged 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds. Stansbury was not pleased with his play at Georgia, when Sidney didn’t get heavily involved until it was too late.
Ravern Johnson has gone cold and is averaging just 12.0 points in SEC play.
Despite MSU’s struggles, Stallings is choosing to see what could be, not what is.
“It doesn’t make it hard to prepare, because again, you have to prepare for who they are, and who they are is a very talented team, and like I said a very experienced team. … They’re obviously a team that the deeper this season goes, I think the more that people will have to reckon with them.”
Even if the Bulldogs do get it together, it might be too late to hope for an NCAA berth short of winning the SEC Tournament, a la 2009.
“I feel like we can still play our way into it,” Bost said. “It’s just that you can’t afford to lose many more games, because you look at it, we’re 10-8 overall and straddling the .500 line. We’ve just got to win each game.”
Vandy is a tough place to start. It has a strong pair of wing players in John Jenkins (18.7 ppg) and Jeffery Taylor (14.8 ppg). Stansbury called 6-foot-11, 255-pound center Festus Ezeli (12.6 ppg, 6.3 rebounds per game) “the most improved player in the league.”
Then there’s point guard Brad Tinsley (10.4 ppg, 4.6 assists per game) and 6-8 forward Lance Goulbourne (8.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg), who was named SEC player of the week on Monday.
The Commodores haven’t missed a beat from last year, when they went 24-9 and were upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They lead the league in scoring (78.7 ppg), are tied for second in field goal percentage (46.5) and are second in 3-point percentage (38.3).
The biggest matchup concern for MSU is Sidney (6-10, 275) versus Ezeli.
“A lot of these other big guys we’ve played against,” Stansbury said, “none of them are going to put pressure on that rim like Ezeli’s going to.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571