March 10, 2011 7:56:00 AM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- Dee Bost knows his shot has been off the past two weeks.
He knows his hamstring and Achilles'' injuries are limiting his lateral movement and the lift on his jump shot.
But as Mississippi State''s second-leading scorer, Bost''s point production will be critical in the Bulldogs'' quarterfinal matchup against LSU or Vanderbilt on Friday at the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The junior point guard has shot 30 percent or lower in each of the past five games since injuring his Achilles'' tendon at the University of Kentucky.
Bost''s decreased point production hasn''t affected the Bulldogs in the win column, as they won four of their last five games to close the regular season.
Bost was a major part of the late-season run with eight assists or more in four of those games. He''s frustrated, though, because when he''s at full strength MSU can be even more dangerous.
Needing to win three games in three days to clinch an NCAA tournament berth, now is the optimal time to have everyone at their peak.
"It''s hurting and I can''t move like I want, but ain''t nothing I can do about it, really," Bost said.
MSU coach Rick Stansbury and players agree the team is playing its best basketball of the season.
Senior wingman Ravern Johnson is the brightest example of the Bulldogs'' late-season form. Once in Stansbury''s doghouse following two suspensions, Johnson enters the SEC tournament as co-Player of the Week after scoring 25 points against Arkansas and 21 against South Carolina.
Once mired in a shooting slump, Johnson has made 26 of his past 44 attempts from the 3-point line.
Johnson''s re-emergence has been the biggest factor in MSU''s improved offense, especially with Jalen Steele lost for the season due to knee surgery.
What happens, though, if Johnson has an off game?
"It would be much easier if he''s on -- absolutely," Stansbury said. "If he''s on it helps our team. Are you asking me to say if he doesn''t hit shots we can''t win? I don''t have the answer to that. I think we''ve got some other guys that can. But when he''s shooting and scoring, it opens up a lot of things."
Johnson''s ability to stretch the floor creates scoring opportunities inside for forwards Kodi Augustus and Renardo Sidney, but it also provides shots for Riley Benock, who has attempted the fewest shots of any starter (139) despite shooting 43 percent from 3-point line this season. Benock is 49 of 114 from beyond the arc. He has attempted only 25 shots that haven''t been 3-pointers.
Benock failed to score in two of the past three games and said he passed up shots against South Carolina because he felt his stroke was off during shootaround.
A more aggressive Benock could be an X-factor on the perimeter if Johnson or Bost struggle.
"Yesterday I stayed after (practice) for a long time trying to get that comfort level back," Benock said. "Hopefully I''ll be able to straighten that out. I think with Dee it''s just one of those things. Everybody goes through it, so I expect him to knock down every shot he takes, just like Ray and any of our other shooters out there. I''ll play the same game I have all year. I love to take shots, but I''m not going to force the issue. That''s when I think our team is really the best anyway."
With three seniors in the starting lineup and a seasoned Bost running the point, the Bulldogs feel they''re built for a run at the SEC tournament title, which they won two seasons ago with four of the players who will start Friday.
Free from off-the-court drama and having played 16 games with their full squad, Bost feels like MSU -- though limited to seven regulars in the rotation -- rivals the likes of nationally-ranked foes Florida and Kentucky.
"We''re real confident because if we play the way we supposed to play, we got the best (starting) five in the league," Bost said. "Ray can shoot the ball. Riley (can shoot the ball). Kodi can shoot it and do more than just shoot. All of our pieces, if we just put it together we can make a run."