STARKVILLE — The Mississippi State men”s basketball team”s players and coaches have expressed their comfort with playing the jam-packed slate at the Southeastern Conference.
But how do their chances this season stack up against the past two seasons, when the Bulldogs made it to the title game?
MSU coach Rick Stansbury thinks this year”s team has as good a chance as the past two when it plays its first game Friday against the winner of the first-round game Thursday between Vanderbilt University and LSU.
Stansbury points to the Bulldogs” finish — they won four of their past five. Their last three losses have been by a combined 11 points.
Only the University of Florida, which has won eight of its past nine, enters the SEC tournament with a better record in the past two weeks.
Stansbury also hopes depth, which has been his team”s Achilles” heel for much of the past two seasons, won”t be an issue, even though he has featured seven players in the rotation and the Bulldogs will be without freshman Jalen Steele (season-ending knee injury).
“We”ve got some guys coming off the bench who”ve played well for us and (are) giving us good minutes,” Stansbury said Monday during the SEC coaches” teleconference. “What helps us is moving some people around in that starting five; we”ve got guys playing multiple positions. Because of that it provides a little bit more time and depth with some people.”
MSU”s ability to pair backup post player Wendell Lewis with another front-court player or to let him operate as the only post player gives Stansbury the chance to rest starting center Renardo Sidney, whose much-publicized fitness issues will be tested if the Bulldogs make the three-games-in-three-days march to the final Sunday.
In the past two weeks, the Bulldogs have used backup point guard Brian Bryant to spell starter Dee Bost and together, with Bost playing two-guard.
MSU”s chances of making it to a third-straight SEC tournament final also are buoyed by its 5-2 mark against the teams on its side of the bracket: Florida, LSU, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
“We didn”t play any of them in Atlanta (site of this year”s tournament), so it”ll be a new challenge for us,” Stansbury said.
Though the Bulldogs (17-13, 9-7 SEC) edged South Carolina 60-58 Saturday, Stansbury is encouraged by the consistency his team has developed after coming together since the beginning of the conference season.
A 9-7 league record and second-place finish in the SEC”s Western division aren”t so much signs of an up-and-down season as they are signs of improvement, Stansbury said.
“Sometimes, everything”s not pretty,” Stansbury said. “I”m sure not having to apologize for an ugly win for us. Any win in this league this time of the year is a big win.
“We”re playing as good as we have all year long right now. I think our guys have come a long way to put themselves in this position. I think it says a lot about what they”ve done.”
SEC balances out
For much of the season, the SEC”s Western Division was viewed as the weaker of the two divisions.
While the combined records and national rankings of the top three teams in the Eastern Division support that theory, the teams in the Western Division have held their own against the “stronger” division.
No. 16 Kentucky, which finished second in the East, lost three games against West opponents this season.
Tennessee, considered a lock for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, lost twice to West teams.
Georgia, which went 9-7 in the league, will enter the SEC tournament as the No. 4 seed after a loss to Alabama in its regular-season finale.
Even conference champion Florida fell victim to the West, as one of its three losses came at MSU.
“I don”t know what”s going to be constituted as an upset this late in the year,” Stansbury said.
The parity in the league is such that it”s difficult to pick a favorite to win the SEC tournament, as opposed to last season when Kentucky was a heavy favorite, Stansbury said.
At this juncture, the league tournament can make or break the hopes of teams on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Teams fighting for a tournament bid have a greater sense of urgency, and as a result are more dangerous.
The Bulldogs proved that in each of the past two seasons by reaching the final and winning the tournament in 2009.
“I think in general that can be the case,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “As a coach, you try to motivate your team, and the game needs to be more important for you than it is for them. But I think a team that has that desperation factor going for them might have a little bit of an advantage.”
The league projects four to six teams to make the NCAA field, and for the teams that are locks, there”s just as much motivation, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said.
“I guarantee you whoever they (teams needing to win the league tournament) go up against is going to try and create a similar sense of urgency,” Pearl said. “The better the seed, the better the chances to advance in the NCAA tournament.”
Alabama, the first team out for the NCAA tournament field in ESPN.com”s Joe Lunardi”s Bracketology, has work to do this weekend in Atlanta.
But should Alabama be on the outside looking in?
The Crimson Tide, who earned a first-round bye thanks to winning the Western Division, went 12-4 in the league and have won 15 of their past 19 games. But they also lost six non-conference games.
“We just try to control things we can control, so going 12-4 in the league, deserves some attention,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “I realize there are a lot of real good teams across the country. This next week will answer a lot of questions for everybody.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team defeated Alabama 78-51 to help clinch the overall league title, supports his former assistant and the Crimson Tide to earn an at-large bid.
“To get 12 wins in this league, used to be a shoe in,” Donovan said. “His team is an NCAA tournament team, and a team that can go in and do some damage.”