March 3, 2010 2:04:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State men''s basketball team''s prospects of making the NCAA tournament are looking brighter and brighter.
But one misstep at 7 tonight against Auburn University (WCBI) could ruin those good feelings.
Once two games off the top in the Southeastern Conference''s Western Division, the Bulldogs were losing grip on their postseason hopes coming off four straight road losses.
A home win against the University of Mississippi on Feb. 11 sparked a stretch that has seen MSU (21-8, 9-5 SEC) win five of its last six games and has helped it clinch a share of the Western Division crown and a bye in the opening round of the SEC Tournament.
The run also has moved MSU back into the mix when analysts draw up their 65-team NCAA tournament brackets.
A victory tonight against Auburn would secure an outright Western Division title and enhance the team''s chances of reaching the NCAA tournament. But the Bulldogs still aren''t a lock for the tournament, so they can''t take their foot off the gas pedal as they begin a five-game launch to their second consecutive SEC Tournament title.
Five on the bounce would make for a better NCAA seed, too.
So when ESPN''s Joe Lunardi updates his latest "Bracketology" on ESPN.com, and SportsCenter runs nightly updates, the players know where they standing for the trip everyone wants to make but so many have to watch.
It''s a big deal, and MSU''s players are reminded daily about where they stand in the hunt to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
MSU coach Rick Stansbury accepts today''s world of up-to-the-second sports updates and the means to receive information as just another dimension of coaching.
While some consider it a distraction, Stansbury sees the situation as a two-fold reminder, especially as a team fighting from the back of the line.
"Our kids understand there''s a lot of business not finished yet," Stansbury said. "For the most part, I think our guys have been pretty good about it. You can''t shield them from all that. Everywhere you go or anywhere you turn on a TV, it''s a big part of it. I don''t think any of them are satisfied with where we''re at."
MSU forward Kodi Augustus said players are all the same when it comes to basketball news.
"I love sports," Augustus said. "My TV is always on ESPN. You can''t not see it because it''s on TV everyday, talking about who''s in, who''s out everyday."
Tonight''s game at Auburn (14-15, 5-9) will be Senior Night for the Tigers. It also will be the team''s final game in Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. The storylines will provide added emotion the Bulldogs will need to match before they have their Senior Night against Kentucky-slayer 2.0, the No. 13-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, at 5 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) at Humphrey Coliseum.
The stir of energy and excitement on Senior Night can affect both teams, Stansbury said. And with a book-ending game at Auburn''s gym, where MSU lost by 15 points last season, the Bulldogs have a unique, relieving way of closing the last week of the regular season.
"Our thing will be the same," Stansbury said. "Our kids can take some pressure off them knowing they won a (SEC West) championship. They don''t have that added pressure on them. But again, there is a lot more laying out there for us to get. Those things just naturally happen without us having to talk about it."
For the Tigers, who are coming off a 74-59 win against LSU, tonight''s game will give them a chance to avenge an 85-75 overtime loss to the Bulldogs on Feb. 13.
Auburn guard Tay Waller dueled MSU''s Dee Bost in a backcourt track meet that saw the AU senior score 21 points to Bost''s game-high 32.
Waller has averaged 27 points and is 21 of 33 from beyond the 3-point arc in the past three games. He''s a big reason the Tigers are 2-1 in that span.
"It just seems like everything he can get off is going in," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said of Waller. "It hasn''t been one game or two game, it''s been the last five where he''s shooting 60 percent form three.
"Even when he''s not scoring the ball, it''s big. It opens up some things for other players because they have to guard him so differently."
MSU will counter with a front court that''s become more active offensively in its win streak. Augustus is averaging 11.7 in the past four games, and Naismith Trophy finalist and newly crowned NCAA blocks king Jarvis Varnado is averaging 16.7 points in the past three.
The added production has come with steady play at the point from Bost, who has a pair of 22-point games and is averaging 5.5 assists per game in the team''s past four games.
"I think we''ve just been playing together, sharing the ball, and getting to the open guy," Varnado said. "It''s going to take a team effort to beat Auburn and Tennessee by sharing the ball and playing good team defense. We got those records out the way so we can focus on games."