That crunch comes Wednesday night when Mississippi State (15-13, 7-7 SEC) travels to Arkansas (18-10, 7-7) for, essentially, the West Division second seed and a bye at the SEC Tournament. There are other scenarios that would allow either of these teams to avoid first-round play in Atlanta, but the simplest solution is for the Bulldogs to lock it up with a Wednesday win.
“Now we’ve got to see if we can do it,” Coach Rick Stansbury said.
The Bulldogs should head to Fayetteville with reasonable hopes they can do it. They just did it Saturday evening on the road as well, outlasting Tennessee for a one-point victory that kept Mississippi State even with the Razorbacks. Further offering encouragement was how the Dogs overcame a short roster and longer odds in Knoxville. Considering much of this season’s erratic ride, it was a major boost to Bulldog morale. “It just feels like we’ve come together as a team,” guard Riley Benock said. “This year we’ve been up and down but we’ve really come together as a team.”
“It’s been a tough year for us,” Bost agreed. “Right now it’s the most important time of the year for us, being crunch time we have to come together as one.”
Dogs and Hogs alike feel the crunch of needing this win. And if Mississippi State is enjoying a welcome return of confidence, Arkansas has even more recent encouragement. A home upset of Kentucky and road survival at Auburn suddenly has Arkansas with a shot at the bye which had seemingly slipped away.
“They’ve won four out of their last five games, they’re playing well and they’re playing for the same thing we are,” Stansbury said. “It’s a big challenge for us, at the same time it’s a great opportunity.”
One challenge for State is notching another road win. Not that they haven’t had success in hostile venues already this year, at Ole Miss and LSU for examples. Tennessee was a whole different matter though, as was the manner of State’s success when after the Vols dunked on an inbounds play with a dozen second left to take the lead the Dogs didn’t flinch. Instead Bost got the ball down the court in time for a dish-and-dunk hookup with backup center Wendell Lewis.
And yet another aspect; it was a backup coming through with the winning play. Lewis was playing extensive SEC minutes on the road since starting center Renardo Sidney could barely stay on the court any stretches before hurrying to the locker room. As to the specific cause of such tummy troubles, “I don’t know if any of us have figured that out yet!” Stansbury said.
“By the next day he was better, don’t know if it was something he ate or drank.” The coach said Sidney’s big toe isn’t troubling him as much as some thought, either. “I haven’t heard a lot about that lately, I didn’t see that in the game and he didn’t mention it.” Sidney certainly had a healthy look at his backup’s efforts, which was also something Stansbury and State had been hoping to see as the sophomore develops. Benock in fact thought Lewis gave something that suited the Tennessee matchup even better than the usual starter.
“With Wendell we could run more, play more transition, and he could block shots,” the guard said. For that matter Lewis came through in an even more unexpected area, making three of his five free throws. And the last miss worked out well as, coming after a foul on the go-ahead stuff, it made Tennessee chase the rebound and waste much of the remaining 3.4 seconds before missing the half-court heave.
Asked of Lewis’ new free throw prowess Stansbury literally rapped knuckles to the table-top today. “I’m not even going to comment on that!” But the coach agreed Lewis was a different Dog this time. It has been one thing to see short stints off the bench. “That game he knew he had to pay maximum minutes until he couldn’t go. And that probably helped him become more relaxed, knowing how many minutes he had to play.”
With Sidney back healthy, presumably, Lewis doesn’t necessarily return to just reserve duty. Stansbury plans to stick with Kodi Augustus as the power forward, and the senior had some key threes in the first half at Knoxville as well as his usual rebounding. Still there is an increasing option of using Lewis in conjunction with Sidney now, as the complementary forward.
“Last year he played at five, this year he’s played minutes at both spots. He gives you another big body and another rebounder. He become a better rebounder when he’s a secondary, not a primary rebounder.” Stansbury also sees Lewis getting a better grasp of how to score, that instead of trying to finesse shots he is going right to the rim as asked all along. “Dunk those balls and don’t be casual,” is how the coach puts it.
Whoever combines for the MSU frontcourt cannot be too casual with Razorback forward Marshawn Powell, though the big pig was not a factor when State won on the home court back on February 9. “For whatever reason Powell didn’t get it going,” Stansbury said. That hasn’t been the case lately though, and “They seem to do a better job at home.” This is all the more the case with Arkansas gunner Rotnei Clark, who also struggled three weeks ago in the Hump.
In fact, Clarke has had little success shooting against State in his last three meetings home or away. He’s an easy first point in the defensive gameplan and a series of Dogs have taken turns checking the chunker. “Myself, Ray(ver Johnson), Dee, other guys,” said Benock. One of them being freshman Jalen Steele who leeched onto Clarke the first time around. Now Steele is done for the year after a knee injury last week, and will have surgery shortly.
“Obviously we wish we had Jalen, just all around,” Benock said. “But as far as guarding Clarke and whoever we have what it takes to get the job done.” Not that there is any choice in the matter, either, Benock noted. “You see a lot of their big wins, he hurt Vandy and played well against Kentucky. It seems as he goes the team goes. We just have to be able to limit his touches and good shots.”
And, continue getting good supporting play from Lewis, guard Brian Bryant, and others as needed. “It seems Brian came in and stepped up for us,” said Bost of his own backup. “Wendell stepped up. If we can continue to get them play like that it will be better for us.” Bost isn’t just being a kind clubmate praising Bryant, because the starting guard is battling his own nagging ills.
“My ham is a lot better but my achilles is still tender,” Bost said. “I’m just getting ice and stim, that’s about all I do.” At least Bost is much more confident about calling for relief, though he and Bryant at times have made a good team lately, too. “If he plays more minutes I think he’ll get more confidence and play well. And me and him out there together I feel I can help him out a lot.”
Bost goes into the last regular-schedule week needing 86 assists to become the Bulldog record holder. Had he not missed the first half of the season under suspension that mark would almost certainly be falling this junior year. As it is Bost has led the SEC in scoring passes per-game most of the league season anyway, not to mention pacing State in scoring and outside shooting. And as Stansbury said, “These are all SEC stats, they’re not watered-down stats. So sitting out half a year and being able to be in position to break all these records, that’s a great accomplishment.”
But Bost has other accomplishments on his mind at this moment. Most obviously, securing a second seed and a shorter SEC Tournament schedule. The Bulldogs expect a serious atmosphere in Walton Arena, despite the obvious drop-off in attendance of recent years as the Razorback program has sputtered. They are taking nothing for granted, even pumping Arkansas music and cheers over the p.a. during Monday’s practice to set a stage of sorts for the road trip.
“A lot of teams are good at home so I’m pretty sure they play well at home,” Bost offered. Arkansas played very well a year ago there in rallying from big deficits to beat State, a loss that proved larger later in the year in NCAA accounting. Bost claims he’s forgotten the whole thing. “I mean, it really left my mind after that game.
“But I’m looking forward going playing there, it’s a great arena. It gets real loud there, we have to go in and stay consistent like we did at Tennessee. We probably have to play a little better.”
And in the process get a win that looms larger in Atlanta accounting. Realistically in fact Wednesday is almost a ‘play in’ game of sorts for the Dogs and Hogs if one of these is to have a shot at real post-season play. On this topic Stansbury is blunt.
“You guys know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to go over there and win that SEC Tournament,” he said. “You can’t mask that, and we don’t talk about the obvious. The obvious thing ahead of us is we have to go to Arkansas and win and get that second seed.”