By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State got a chance to breathe this week. Now it has a chance to get on a roll for the first time in weeks.
The No. 22-ranked Bulldogs (17-5, 4-3 SEC), after losing 69-57 to Florida last weekend, had no midweek game. That’s given them time to rest and assess where they stand.
MSU hasn’t won three in a row since before Christmas, when it won 11 in a row. A pattern has emerged in SEC play: one loss, two wins, one loss, two wins, one loss.
State tries to get back in the win column Saturday when Auburn (13-9, 3-5) visits Humphrey Coliseum. It’s the first of three consecutive home games for the Bulldogs, who will welcome in Ole Miss and Georgia next week.
It’s a good opportunity to get on a roll.
“This is a perfect time to do it,” freshman Rodney Hood said. “We’ve got the rest, and then we’ve got three home games. I think this will be a big confidence-booster for us.”
The midweek break came at a good time for State, which is dealing with a thin bench and some subsequent fatigue. The Bulldogs can go only seven deep on a consistent basis, as Shaun Smith continues to battle hip issues.
Then there’s freshman Roquez Johnson, who played some during the non-conference slate but has yet to see the floor in SEC play.
“He’s not quite ready for it at this level, but we like Rock,” coach Rick Stansbury said. “He just can’t get it all on the same page enough to put in there in SEC play, when it is a fine line between winning and losing.”
MSU’s practices this week have been relatively light so the Bulldogs can feel refreshed for the stretch run. That’s the biggest key in Stansbury’s eyes.
“The biggest thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to be able to keep our energy level where it’s got to be,” he said. “When we play hard, there’s no question that’s when we’re at our best.
“That’s a combination of a couple of things: We have to be smart as coaches from the standpoint of fatigue, and we’ve got to be smart about what demands we put on them from a mental standpoint.”
A greater energy level could help MSU’s defense. In SEC play, teams are shooting 47.9 percent against State, including 43.9 percent from 3-point range.
The offense has been adequate, but not explosive enough to overcome some of the defensive deficiencies and lack of depth. Another factor has been MSU’s turnover margin, which in league games is minus-2.5.
State is tied for fourth place in the SEC with nine games to go. If some of the issues are fixed and they don’t wear down, the Bulldogs have both time and opportunity to make a strong stretch run.
“We’re not where we wanted to be,” senior Brian Bryant said, “but we’re still in a good position to win the SEC.”