The Mississippi State Bulldogs will launch the Southeastern Conference portion of their schedule on Saturday.
MSU, which has started 13-2 this season, travels to Arkansas to face the 11-3 Razorbacks, and unlike the recent past, the Bulldogs have positioned themselves nicely heading into their so-called second season with room for improvement.
“I think there's a lot of room for improvement with this (team), probably a lot more than some of the other teams I've had going into this time,” said Mississippi State’s head coach Rick Stansbury. “Some other teams I've taken into this time of the year, you didn't have that level of improvement left.
“You have some guys hitting on all cylinders effort-wise and executing, doing those kinds of things. That's why I think there's a lot of improvement left for this team.”
Stansbury’s Bulldogs have played their way into second place in the SEC during the non-conference slate, trailing only Kentucky. The success is thanks in large part to the veteran leadership that has helped keep the off-the-court distractions that killed State a season ago to a minimum.
“I haven't had off-court drama except for last year,” Stansbury reminded. “It's a totally different team. It's different. If I'm correct, we've got two starters back from last year's team, two guys. The rest of those guys are new. I hope everybody learned from that situation last year, talking about Sid. Hopefully, he learned from that situation. As I said, Sid's been a much better teammate than he has been, and there's no substitute for experience and maturity. There's no substitute for it.”
One of the newcomers Stansbury mentioned is freshman Rodney Hood. The Meridian native has been injected into the starting line up from day one and since that time he has played with a poise well beyond his years.
“I had high expectations for him as you all know,” said Stansbury of Hood who is the third-leading scorer with 12.3 points per game. “I think he’s probably exceeded those.
“Did I think he would lead us in minutes? No. Did I think he would take care of the basketball like he has? Not really. The biggest thing for him is the game never speeds up for him. That game will speed you up and make you rush at times. He never seems to be in a hurry. As I’ve said many times, the only thing that will help him is playing experience and that strength level. As he gets stronger, he’ll get more physical and be able to handle screening action better. I don’t have any questions or concerns about him.”
When you consider the Bulldogs have one of the leagues top freshmen in Hood, one of the game’s best point guards in Dee Bost, and the SEC’s leading rebounder in Arnett Moultrie, it is easy to see how the Bulldogs have had success.
“The thing that's different about this team is we have multiple weapons, which keeps you from having to execute quite as well and still allows you to win games,” said Stansbury. ”If you get those guys executing and doing those things with multiple weapons, it makes you even better.”
The scary thing about this year’s team is for as well as they’ve played at times this season, they have yet to have their best players on the floor and playing in rhythm.
“I think the longer we play and play together the better we will get in those situations, said Stansbury. “When you look back there has been five, six, seven, games where we haven’t had our whole team and we’ve had to play so different with so many different guys out there. If we can stay healthy, it gives us a change to get better in those situations.
“I think what is good about it is that we’ve got a bunch of guys that can do it, we haven’t had to depend on one guy. I think we’ve been able to do it against different people in different ways. Like I said, six or seven of those games, we had to do it which I think is good. I think the longer we can play together the more consistency we can get in what we are trying to do.”
The Bulldogs will look to take that next step of improvement on Saturday as they look to win on the road in the SEC. Tipoff for the CSS telecast is set for 8 p.m.