STARKVILLE — Turns out Ben Howland was right.
Mississippi State’s men’s basketball coach pestered his team to rebound in a stretch of four losses in five games prior to a matchup against Tennessee on Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU’s trickle down the Southeastern Conference standings coincided with a declining rebounding margin, which convinced Howland the latter would help fix the former.
Howland was proven correct — as soon as his players believed him.
MSU, which is 13th in the 14-team SEC in rebounds per game and offensive rebounds per game, responded with a season-high 55 rebounds in a 64-59 victory against Tennessee. Howland thinks MSU (14-8, 5-5 SEC) will need more of the same at 8 tonight (ESPNU) when it faces Auburn (15-8, 4-6) at Auburn Arena.
“They played great in their last outing at Alabama,” Howland said of Auburn, which has won four of its last six games. “They swept Alabama, something we were unable to do. We couldn’t get one win against them and they got two. They’re playing well, and playing with a lot of confidence.”
MSU sophomore guard Xavian Stapleton said the Bulldogs got tired of being outrebounded and set out to change course.
“We really went a lot more than we had before,” Stapleton said. “Coach put emphasis on going to the glass, and I guess we started buying in, we started going and the ball started bouncing our way for rebounds.”
The luck of the bounce might have played a role in the turnaround, but Howland credited his players’ effort.
“Better job of offensive rebounding, No. 1,” Howland said. “Our previous game we had five and Saturday we had 21, that’s a 16(-rebound) differential. We did a better job defensively on their first shot and did a better job blocking out.”
MSU has yet to lose a road game in the SEC when it has lost the rebounding battle. On Jan. 7, it won the rebounding battle at LSU. It did the same Jan. 10 at Arkansas. MSU won those games by a combined 23 points.
That being the case, the Bulldogs want to stay focused on rebounding so they can duplicate their latest effort.
“It takes just being physical and being able to go every time, having it in your mind on offense that have you to rebound and on defense that you have to box out and get this rebound,” Stapleton said. “It’s just the fact that us being physical, buying into what coach is telling us and getting the job done.”
While Stapleton was talking about rebounding, the same could be said for MSU’s play as a whole away from Humphrey Coliseum. After wins at LSU and at Arkansas, MSU lost to Tennessee and Alabama before, as Howland put it, “obviously our worst game against Ole Miss,” referencing the 88-61 loss on Jan. 31.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson