February 15, 2011 9:01:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The only solace Mississippi State men''s basketball coach Rick Stansbury can take in trying to rebound from a loss at the University of Kentucky is the Wildcats'' current run of form.
Losers of three of their last four games, Kentucky (17-7, 5-5 Southeastern Conference) will play host to MSU (13-11, 5-5) at 6 tonight (ESPN) in a rematch of last year''s SEC tournament title game.
No. 22 Kentucky isn''t as far off as its skid would indicate. Its issues have revolved around closing games. The Wildcats have lost their last three games by eight points, but remain in line to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
MSU is still searching for consistency, especially on the road, where it has lost three of four by an average of 13 points.
The Bulldogs'' latest road setback came Saturday at Auburn, 65-62. The Tigers have the worst record in the SEC and had lost to the Bulldogs by 19 points in Starkville. MSU blew a 19-point second half lead en route to the improbable loss.
The loss was especially damaging because MSU could have earned its third victory in a row and taken a one-and-a-half game lead against Arkansas for second place in the SEC West.
Multiple problems plagued MSU against Auburn. Renardo Sidney and Kodi Augustus fouled out. Augustus'' technical foul came within seconds of Sidney picking up his fourth and fifth foul.
Auburn also scored 30 points in the final 11 minutes, including 15 off MSU turnovers in the second half.
MSU went 1-for-9 from 3-point range in the second half -- it made 8 of 15 in the first -- and scored just 11 points in the final 11 minutes. Still, the Bulldogs led by 13 with nearly four and a half minutes left.
"Just every little thing that had to go right for them went right for them," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said Monday. "To add to that, we had to turn the ball over some to give them opportunities to get in transition.
"It''s a difficult enough situation just going up there on a high and playing in Lexington. It''s very obvious that''s not where we''re going in there now. But that''s part of it. You got to show some maturity, keep things in perspective, and get ready for that next one."
The difficulties are familiar. MSU is still struggling to keep its front-court players out of foul trouble and isn''t scoring enough down the stretch. The Bulldogs are averaging 8.7 points in the last 10 minutes of play in the past three games.
A resurgence by swingman Ravern Johnson could help correct that problem. Johnson returned from a two-game suspension Saturday but had just three points on 1-of-6 shooting.
Johnson is 3 of 13 in his past two games, not counting MSU''s wins against LSU and Arkansas he missed due to suspension.
When asked if Johnson would start tonight, Stansbury said, "I ain''t made no decisions on that."
Johnson''s replacement in the starting lineup, freshman Jalen Steele, has been effective but hasn''t provided Johnson''s scoring punch.
Still, Kentucky coach John Calipari considers MSU''s lineup to be one of the most talented in the league.
"They''re gonna come in here with something to prove," Calipari said. "You''re talking about as good a players as we have in our league. I watched the tape (of the game against Auburn). They turned it over a couple of times, missed a couple of shots, Auburn gets hot, and you''re on the road. That doesn''t just happen to Mississippi State. It happened to us."
Kentucky freshmen Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight have received most of the Wildcats'' plaudits this season, averaging 17.9 and 17.4 points per game, respectively.
Jones is a force when he moves to center to spell starter Josh Harrellson, Stansbury said.
Kentucky''s quickness also is a great asset, as it can easily swap parts and have a backcourt with two players 6-foot-6 or taller.
Stansbury said the Wildcats'' quickness and skill doesn''t leave areas where teams think they can neutralize.
"I think last year, from our standpoint, there''s some things you felt like you had a chance to take away from them," Stansbury said. "It''s hard to take anything away from them because they''re so skilled and so quick, particularly when they slide Jones down to that five spot and bring (Doron) Lamb in. They''ve got unbelievable quickness at every position."
That quickness up front will provide another challenge for Augustus, who has 19 turnovers in the past four games.
After spending most of his career farther away from the basket, Augustus has adapted to Stansbury''s need to have him battling for boards and playing on the block.
The results, at least lately, have been mixed.
"Around that post against Auburn I know he had some walking calls," Stansbury said. "(It''s) unusual for him down there. That''s not always his strength, playing his back to the basket in tight quarters down in there. His shot fake has made him walk on several occasions down there.
"The thing I like about is you''re not talking about lack of effort anymore. That''s a positive thing."
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