By MATTHEW STEVENS
The college basketball team coming into Humphrey Coliseum tonight accomplished something last year Mississippi State was one-tenth of a second away from doing.
East Tennessee State (3-4) arrives in Starkville as the Bulldogs first opponent that qualified for the 2010 NCAA Tournament after winning the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament. Among mid-major programs, only Gonzaga, Winthrop, Northern Iowa, Butler and Southern Illinois have more NCAA Tournament appearances in the last seven years.
“Right now the only game that matters is a very, very good East Tennessee State team,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said. “All I can tell you is they went into Dayton and won and Dayton went into Ole Miss and won.”
The Bucs return two starters from a team looking for a third consecutive league title and NCAA berth but struggling to find consistency in its non-league slate after back-to-back losses at USC Upstate and College of Charleston.
“I’m very surprised by the 20-point loss, but we’re just struggling to score right now,” ETSU head coach Murry Bartow said after a 79-59 loss to Charleston Tuesday.
When he met with the media this week, Stansbury chose to focus on the Bucs five-point upset victory at Dayton that ended the Flyers 40-game home winning streak and the challenge his team will have in bouncing back from the two-point loss on Nov. 30 to Florida Atlantic while embarking on a physically-demanding five-game in five day stretch.
“Truth be known, players would rather play games than practice,” Stansbury said. “And I promise you games are easier than practice. It will be challenging in a lot of different ways, and maybe makes us do some things differently than we would do. This first one will be against somebody as good as we’ve seen all year long.”
Coming into this season, the Bucs were counting on quality offensive production from what they refer to as the “Big 3” senior guards in Mike Smith, Justin Tubbs and Micah Williams. All three have had double-figure scoring seasons last season but the Bucs’ four losses have coincided with poor output from the trio.
Mississippi State (4-1) is led by the high production duo of senior guard Ravern Johnson and senior forward Kodi Augustus. Johnson, a 6-foot-7 wing player, is leading the Southeastern Conference and is fourth in the country by averaging 25.4 points per game.
Augustus is tops in the league with 10.8 rebounds but his coach is still pushing his 6-foot-8 post player for more out of necessity.
“I think he’s been better still but I’d like for him to do more every day,” Stansbury said, “Just don’t know if he understands that role and expectations of what we really need from him because he’s got more still even though he’s been good for us so far."
The uniqueness of this stretch of games without a practice in-between will be draining to the stamina of the active roster but was put together in order to finish Dee Bost’s nine-game suspension for missing the NBA Draft deadline before the SEC opener at home against Alabama on Jan. 8.
“It’s going to be hard to prepare for but it’s a challenge we all look forward to,” sophomore guard Twany Beckham said. “We’ve kind of slowed things down in practice because of it.”
Tip at Humphrey Coliseum is slated for 7 p.m., and tickets can be purchased for $5. Prior to the men’s game, the MSU women battle Utah at 4 p.m.