For the Mississippi State men’s basketball team, it’s three separate one-game seasons – or so they hope.
The Bulldogs (17-13, 9-7 in SEC play) will open the Southeastern Conference Tournament tonight when they face Vanderbilt at 9 p.m. at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Everybody on the MSU squad understands that if they lose at any point in this event, the 2010-11 season will likely be over and certainly any hope of an NCAA Tournament bid goes away. For the three senior starters on the Mississippi State roster, the motivation doesn’t get any bigger than this situation.
“We're definitely confident right now,” MSU senior guard Riley Benock said. “Just having that feeling of your back against the wall, needing wins to get into the NCAA tournament, that provides a little extra motivation for everybody.”
Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury, who has the ninth-most SEC Tournament wins in event history, describes this journey as a step-by-step process to winning a championship similarly to two years ago when the Bulldogs won four contests in four days to receive an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“To get your second (game), you've got to win the first,” Stansbury said. “To win a championship, you've got to win three games. That's the opportunity you like. You can win a championship in three games. But to win three, you've got to win the first. After you win the first, you've got to get the second. You get to that third, anything could happen.”
State’s coaches were intent on focusing on the 24th-ranked Commodores (22-9, 9-7) because they only saw them once in a evenly-matched Jan. 27 contest at Humphrey Coliseum where MSU lost a nine-point lead with 9 minutes left before junior forward Jeffery Taylor completely took over punctuated with a backcourt steal and dunk to end the game.
“It's something that we have been struggling with throughout the season,” Taylor said. “Obviously if we get in that situation when we're down here, (a killer instinct) is something that we need to do in order to be successful going down the line.”
Vanderbilt is coming into the postseason tournament losing three of four games in the regular season but head coach Kevin Stallings shakes his head when critics say his team isn’t playing well at the most important time.
“I think that first of all, it's interesting that there's a perception that we have not played well the last couple of weeks because we have lost three out of four,” Stallings said. “We had a very miserable 10 or 12 or 14 minutes against Tennessee, and then we got beat by the best team in the league. For the most part, so did everybody else.”
Stansbury does the same thing trying to figure out how to exploit Vanderbilt’s weaknesses because of the balance they have in their starting lineup.
“The best (center) in this league in (Festus) Ezeli,” Stansbury said. “They
try to get the ball to him in that lane. Then Taylor, he's a tough matchup for us at that 3 spot. I've talked about two guys who are not even their leading scorer. I'm not even talking about Jenkins - the leading scorer in the SEC and the
problem he presents. They're experienced. They have depth. They don't make a whole lot of mistakes out there for things you can take advantage of.”
Despite all of those elements, Mississippi State’s lack of depth will try to be compensated by the fact they believe their starting five is the most talented in the conference.
“We're real confident because if we play the way we supposed to play, we got the best (starting) five in the league," Bost said. "Ray (Ravern Johnson) can shoot the ball. Riley (can shoot the ball). Kodi (Augustus) can shoot it and do more than just shoot. All of our pieces, if we just put it together we can make a run."
Johnson was tabbed the SEC’s Player of the Week following two outstanding performances against Arkansas and South Carolina.
In those two victories, the Lyon native averaged 23 points and 5.5 rebounds while making 12 of his 22 attempts beyond the arc has really turned heads as he’s 26 of 44 from long range in his last six games.
“It would be much easier if he's on – absolutely,” Stansbury said. “There's no question about that. If he's on, it helps our team. When he's shooting and scoring, it opens up a lot of things.”
Johnson leads the Bulldogs and is fifth in the SEC with his 17.6 scoring clip, while his 80 made 3-pointers are tops as well. Against the Gamecocks on Saturday, he tied his career-high with seven treys.
Only twice in his 13-year coaching career, a Stansbury-coached Mississippi State team is coming into the SEC Tournament on a three-game winning streak like the run this Bulldogs squad is on – 2004 and 2002.
In 2002, MSU won the event and in 2004 they lost in the quarterfinals against Vanderbilt.
“I think we're playing better cause we've had the chance to play together,” Stansbury said. “They've stayed together and they're playing their best basketball and this is when you want to play it.”