Bulldogs look to put end to poor starts

MSU coach Ben Howland
Staff Writer

It has long been said that it’s not how you start, but how you finish that counts. However, in recent days, Mississippi State is learning that bad beginnings can indeed lead to undesirable endings.
As MSU (14-9, 5-6) prepares to host South Carolina (19-5, 9-2) in a 7 p.m. game Saturday night at Humphrey Coliseum, the Bulldogs are hoping to reverse what has become a disturbing trend of late. State has trailed at halftime in each of its last seven games. While the Bulldogs have gone on to win two of those contests, MSU head coach Ben Howland would love to see his team come out strong for the first time in a while when the Bulldogs battle the Gamecocks.
“The key for us and the way you stay in games, when we’ve had success, we do it by defense,” Howland said. “As soon as our defense breaks down, teams are building leads on us. We have to focus on defending and rebounding first and foremost. Then, the offense will eventually (come).”
If there has been a bright spot to MSU’s early struggles in games, it has been that the Bulldogs have proven to have the mettle to claw back. Despite falling down by 19 points in the first half to Tennessee on Feb. 4, then facing a 12-point halftime deficit, State found a way to win 64-59.
Then, on Tuesday in Auburn, Mississippi State trailed by 20 at the half before making a game of things and losing by only six.
Still, the Bulldogs would much prefer to play from in front. Howland continually preaches that starts with better defense. Yet Howland also says the Bulldogs are missing opportunities offensively as well.
“We’re missing some open shots early in some of these games,” Howland said. “You go back and look at the film or watch the game over and you’ll see and it’s just like, ‘Wow. Those are good, open looks.’ Even against Tennessee, there were some perimeter shots, but they were open. We’ve got to knock down some open shots too.”
It wouldn’t be advisable for the Bulldogs to have another slow start against the Gamecocks. South Carolina is one of the Southeastern Conference’s most physical teams and the Gamecocks have the power to pull away.
South Carolina is fueled by the play of senior guard Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell leads the Gamecocks in both scoring and rebounding. He averages 20.4 points per game and 7.7 boards per contest.
“He’s playing like a senior and like a guy who has had three years of experience in front of him,” Howland said of Thornwell. “I thought he was really good last year when we played them. I was really impressed with his feel for the game and his knowledge and how hard he played. They’re playing small a lot now, so he’s playing at the four and he’s a real matchup nightmare for four men. He’ll be screening on the ball, so if you switch that, he’s bigger and stronger than your point guard, then he’s quicker and faster than your four. He rebounds the ball well and can defend that position because of his length and long arms.
“He’s had a lot of big games through this year. He’s a heck of a player.”
If MSU gets its way, the defense can limit Thornwell, build an early lead and avoid the late pressure the Bulldogs have felt down the stretch in recent games.
Even with the slow starts of late, Howland doesn’t anticipate doing a whole lot of tinkering with his starting lineup. Instead, Howland says the key to stronger starts is as simple as better performance.
“I don’t see us changing too much (with the starting lineup),” Howland said. “It’d be one guy – if that. At the end of the day, that’s not the answer. The answer is to play better as a team.”