By MATTHEW STEVENS
The reason Mississippi State seems to be a horrible matchup for Auburn at this point of the season is the Tigers still haven’t found a consistent way to put the ball in the hoop.
Not so coincidently, the Mississippi State men’s basketball team may just be finding its way to defend.
MSU comes into Auburn’s new arena on a two-game winning streak after allowing just 57 and 56 points against LSU and Arkansas in those victories while the Tigers, the nation’s 30th-youngest team, still only has one player (sophomore guard Earnest Ross) earning a double-figure scoring average at 13.2 points per game.
“I thought we played with great toughness against Arkansas,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said. “It’s the kind of play you’ve got to have to compete in the SEC.”
In its eight Southeastern Conference losses this season, Auburn (8-15, 1-8 in SEC play) has failed to reach the 70-point plateau in each of them except for the last defeat but that 81-72 setback at Georgia involved an overtime period.
Against an MSU team that is 9-2 when they hold opponents to 65 points or less this season, Auburn head coach Tony Barbee is fully aware his squad will have to shut down State’s inside-out duo of Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost to have any chance of a home upset.
“They are starting to get their chemistry together since Bost has come back,” Barbee said. “Sidney is starting to get into shape now. They are one of the most talented teams in our conference.”
Mississippi State (13-10, 5-4), which has lost two straight at Auburn, travels to the Plains following Bost’s 18-point performance against Arkansas where the junior became the 33rd player in school history to reach 1,000 points for a career. The game also featured a second-straight double-double by Sidney, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Bost, is averaging just over 17 points per game this season, and in four games against Auburn has averaged 20 per contest, including a career-high 32 last year in Starkville.
MSU had a season-high 20 assists and 10 blocked shots in the 85-66 victory over Auburn this season on Jan. 16. In the 500th game at Humphrey Coliseum, Mississippi State broke open an early 19-point lead and shot a season-high 62 percent from the field to cruise to its second straight SEC victory.
“We made it really easy for them because we didn’t defend well,” Barbee said. “We didn’t get back in transition either and we are definitely going to have to do that with Bost back there.”
Auburn is still looking for its first SEC win in its new $86 million arena that the Tigers program officially opened on Nov. 12 with a 70-69 overtime loss to North Carolina-Ashville.
It was last year’s trip to Auburn that may have put a dagger in Mississippi State’s at-large hopes for the NCAA Tournament when they dropped an 89-80 contest to an under .500 Tigers team in the last game ever at Beards-Eaves Coliseum.