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March 9, 2011Mississippi State heads into the SEC Tournament on a high note having won four of its last five games.
With the Bulldogs likely needing a tournament championship to punch its ticket to the postseason, head coach Rick Stansbury has confidence his squad has what it takes to made the title game for the third straight season.
Now that MSU's roster has settled in following multiple suspensions and midseason transfers they seem to be playing their best basketball.
"I think we are playing better because we've had a chance to play more together," Stansbury said. "I've said this many a time - January is like Novemeber's schedule, February is like December's schedule and that's what it was for us. We absolutely started over in January."
The Bulldogs earned a first round bye after finishing second in the Western Division and will take on the winner of the LSU-Vanderbilt matchup on Thursday. State was just 1-2 during the regular season against those two programs losing both games at home as well as winning by a point in Baton Rogue.
"We'll do a lot of anticipation here with Vanderbilt," Stansbury said. "LSU is a team that we just played here recently so their prep is not as difficult. Vanderbilt is a team we played 12 games ago and have only played them once. LSU we played twice and played them within the last four or five games."
The Commodores will be the favorite to be Mississippi State's opponent on Friday and if that happens Stansbury anticipates the same matchup problems his team faced in a 81-74 loss on Jan. 27.
"Everybody is going to look at Vanderbilt," Stansbury said. "That's a team that you'll point to. Can LSU upset anybody? I think it's very possible anybody can beat anybody. (Vanderbilt) has two things that can probably attack us as well as any team over there. Their five guy is going to attack you in the paint. He's the best of any five guy in this league in (Festus) Ezeli. They try to get the ball to him in that lane. Then (Jeffery) Taylor is a tough matchup for us at that three spot. When we went up eight or nine then Taylor took this game over here.
"I've talked about two guys who are not even their leading scorer. That's not even talking about (John) Jenkins, the leading scorer in the SEC, and the problems he presents. Vanderbilt is well put together and experienced. They've got depth and they don't make a whole lot of mistakes out there for you to take advantage of."
Earlier this week junior point guard Dee Bost earned a second team spot on the coaches All-SEC team despite missing half of the season while on an NCAA and academic school mandated suspension.
Even as well as Bost has been for the Bulldogs this season he was also been injury plagued and has had an impact on his scoring of late. He is still averaging 15.3 points despite scoring only a total of 17 points in his last two contests.
"I think he's the one guy on our team that when you watch him physically he's just not quite the same," Stansbury said. "I don't know how much it all affects him. He's had an Achilles problem, hamstring problem and just getting your tooth knocked out is a problem. He's fought through all that. The one thing you'd say he struggles is his shooting. The things he hasn't struggled with for the most part is that he distributes that basketball, still defends and plays 35 or 36 minutes a game. Those things have been constant."
Also earlier in the week troubled sophomore forward Renardo Sidney also broke his season-long silence to the media. The 6-foot-10 former McDonalds All-American spoke at length with the local media about his battle of being out of shape as well as his much publicized fight with then teammate Elgin Bailey in Hawaii.
"I'd say six months ago he couldn't have humbled himself at all to any mistakes or anything like that," Stansbury said. "If he did humble himself, which I anticipate him being able to do some, he couldn't have done that six months ago because he wouldn't have understood. He had nothing to compare it to and now he's had something to compare it to."
The press conference on Tuesday was just another positive step for Sidney as he continues to progress towards regaining his once promising future.
"He's nowhere near where he needs to be," Stansbury said. "But he's made progress. That's what we have to gauge things on. He's made progress in a lot of things not just between the lines. Is he perfect yet? Absolutely not. But he's making progress and that's all you can hope for as a coach."
But as for Sidney, Stansbury and the rest of the Bulldog roster, their sites are set on doing some damage in Atlanta over the weekend and hoisting a trophy on Sunday afternoon.
"To win a championship you've got to win three games," Stansbury said. "That's the opportunity that you like. You can win a championship in three games but to win three games you've got to win that first one."