The Bulldogs (12-10, 4-4 SEC) are in second place in the Western Division heading into tonight's home game against Arkansas (14-8, 4-5), the third-place team. A strong finish through the last half of the SEC slate could solidify State's runner-up status and earn it a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament.
For a team with so many off-court headaches and inconsistent on-court play, focusing on that goal could have a galvanizing effect.
"It's a big game in our season," senior guard Riley Benock said. "Right now, 4-4, we kind of need to make our move, not so much for the season and stuff now, but just kind of positioning (for the) SEC Tournament as well."
For now, MSU is trying to make its move minus senior guard Ravern Johnson, who's serving an indefinite suspension for his ill-advised Twitter messages last week as well as missed classes. That's led to coach Rick Stansbury cobbling together his seventh different lineup of the season.
The only Bulldogs to have started all 22 games are Benock and Kodi Augustus. MSU had the same starting five from the start of SEC play until Johnson got suspended, and that incident has reminded people - if they ever forgot - of the tumultuous December that saw Renardo Sidney get suspended, get in a fight, get suspended again, and the fallout from that.
Forward Elgin Bailey and guard Twany Beckham then transferred, greatly upsetting the rotation and thinning the bench.
"I think it's pretty safe to say I've never been around anything quite like this year," Benock said. "In the past we've had little ups and downs and stuff, but never to this level, it doesn't seem like."
Praise for Bost, Sidney
Through it all, MSU remains a dangerous team. Just ask Florida, which lost in Starkville nearly two weeks ago.
Or ask Arkansas coach John Pelphrey, who's 2-4 against MSU. What he sees is not turmoil, but a collection of talent. He had particular praise for junior point guard Dee Bost and Sidney, who are the top two non-suspended scorers for MSU at 17.1 and 13.6 points per game, respectively.
"I don't really think you're ever going to stop Dee Bost," Pelphrey said.
He echoed those words when talking about Sidney, the 6-foot-10 sophomore.
"I don't know if anybody's going to physically stop that young man. Tremendous, tremendous talent. ... He's such a physical presence, and he's so much bigger and stronger than everybody else."
The Razorbacks will counter with their own store of good talent. Junior guard Rotnei Clarke continues to shoot at a torrid pace, hitting 41 percent of hits 3-pointers while averaging a team-leading 13.2 points per game.
Marshawn Powell, a 6-7 sophomore, averages 10.9 ppg and should play despite an injured ankle. Last season in Starkville, Powell scored 25 points in an 82-80 MSU win.
The Hogs are hard to figure out. They're the only team to beat Vanderbilt in Nashville this season and the only SEC team to beat Alabama, but they've lost two in a row, to Georgia and Ole Miss.
The Razorbacks find themselves in the same boat as MSU, needing to finish strong and grab that No. 2 tournament seed. So tonight's game can, for a little while at least, take the focus off the drama.
And for State, winning can be a salve for the many self-inflicted wounds of this season.
"It's probably the hardest year I've been through since I've been here," said Bost, who's playing tonight with a strained Achilles' tendon. "We really don't have no more room for mistakes and just got to grow up as a team."
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571