February 22, 2011 8:20:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The players on the Mississippi State men''s basketball team would like an easier path to the NCAA tournament, but they''re used to taking a bumpy road.
In each of the past three seasons, the Bulldogs have had 10 losses or more -- often a stumbling block to earn a spot in the NCAA field -- before the start of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
MSU reached the SEC tournament final the past two seasons, and vaulted into the NCAA field after winning four games to take the title in 2009.
With three seniors and a junior remaining from those teams, it''s safe to say the Bulldogs (14-12, 6-6) are comfortable knowing they have work to do late in the season.
"Kind of like this year, we''ve been kind of up and down to start some seasons but come together as a team and start moving the ball," MSU senior guard Riley Benock said. "That''s when we''re always successful."
Benock said that even in a loss to Auburn -- where the Bulldogs led by 19 points -- he felt the team was playing quality basketball before "hitting a wall."
"From then on, we''ve kind of been a different team," Benock said. "We''ve passed the ball well, we''ve been getting good shots."
MSU has shot better than 46 percent in each of its past two games. It has 21 assists Saturday in a 71-58 victory against the University of Mississippi.
The Bulldogs also have improved defensively, holding three of their past five opponents under 60 points and surrendering an average of 64.2 in the past five games.
MSU coach Rick Stansbury said he makes it a point to alter late-season practice repetitions to ensure players are fresh mentally and physically.
But with point guard Dee Bost missing the fall semester and Renardo Sidney''s conditioning issues, the Bulldogs have had to play catchup for much of the year, Stansbury said. In many ways, the team feels fortunate to be in position to earn a bye in the league tournament.
Bost said the team has maintained a solid energy level in practice and has displayed the ability to put tough losses -- like the loss at Auburn - behind them.
It''s a trait that can pay dividends in the SEC tournament.
"I think if we go out and play hard every game and keep playing, I think we can win the rest of these games," Bost said. "We always make runs during the SEC tournament, so I think we can this year, too."
MSU will play host to LSU (10-17, 2-10) at 8 p.m. Wednesday (CSS) before going on the road to face Tennessee and Arkansas. The Bulldogs beat the Tigers 58-57 on Feb. 5. They defeated the Razorbacks 67-56 on Feb. 9.
MSU also will face South Carolina, which is in last place in the SEC''s Eastern Division, to wrap up the regular season.
Bost fighting through pain
After returning from suspension that kept him out of the first part of the season, Bost anticipated playing extended minutes. He didn''t think he''d play the home stretch with nagging injuries.
But in the past two weeks Bost has played through a strained Achilles suffered at LSU and a pulled hamstring he suffered in warmups before the game against the University of Kentucky. He still played more than 30 minutes in each game and hasn''t missed a start.
"It''s still sore, but it''s better than what it was," Bost said of his hamstring.
Bost said his injuries have limited his lateral movement and his ability to plant with power.
He struggled from the field Saturday against Ole Miss, finishing with five points on 20-percent shooting. However, he posted a season-high nine assists and didn''t have a turnover -- the first time he has done that this season.
Bost would welcome another sub-30 minute game to help him heal for the SEC tournament
"I''d rather be out there 30 minutes and not play as many minutes, get a breather during the game and finish the game strong," Bost said. "The injuries are kind of killing me in some ways because I''m not as quick as I used to feel. But (I have to) just keep pressing and getting treatment and it will come."