January 3, 2012 9:05:00 AM
The pieces are in place.
Rick Stansbury has repeated the thought that the 2011-12 Mississippi State University men's basketball team has greater versatility and depth than last season's team.
On Saturday, MSU showcased another ingredient it will need to realize its potential: Resolve.
Pushed to the limit by a program with a NCAA tournament pedigree, MSU overcame a nine-point first-half deficit and rallied for a 66-64 victory against Utah State at Humphrey Coliseum.
The victory helped MSU (13-2) rebound from a 54-52 loss to then-No. 6 Baylor on Wednesday and allowed it to stay at No. 15 in this week's Associated Press Top 25. The Bulldogs slipped two spots to No. 16 in the USA Today/ESPN poll, while Baylor climbed two spots to No. 4 in the AP rankings.
MSU will try to build on that momentum at 8 p.m. Saturday when it plays at the University of Arkansas in its Southeastern Conference opener.
Senior point guard Dee Bost became MSU's all-time leader in assists against Utah State. Although he shot 1 of 10 and had just five points, Bost handed out four assists to give him 516 for his career, which surpassed Derrick Zimmerman (514 assists). Bost made history when Jalen Steele took a pass from Bost and hit a 3-pointer with 13 minutes, 59 seconds remaining in the game.
Although statistically lacking, Bost's performance against Utah State was telling. With its second-leading scorer (16.6 points per game entering the game) unable to find his rhythm, MSU relied on a balanced attack that saw freshman Rodney Hood score a game-high 16 points. Arnett Moultrie added 15 points and Renardo Sidney added 13 points even though both players were at less than 100 percent due to illness.
Freshman point guard DeVille Smith had seven points and four assists in 14 minutes, and Brian Bryant had four points and three rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench.
Stansbury praised Smith's effort after the victory, saying the former Jackson Callaway standout gives MSU depth at the point guard position and an ability to keep pace without Bost on the floor.
Bryant and Steele give MSU perimeter shooting threats if opponents decide to play a zone in an attempt to limit the touches of Moultrie and Sidney on the block. Moultrie and Sidney can negate that tactic by stepping out to 18 feet to stretch the defense.
Moultrie also showed the tenacity that has come to be his trademark at MSU. Trailing 64-62, MSU inbounded the ball on the baseline to the left of the basket. Moultrie said the play was designed for someone else, but he took the pass as an outlet and missed his first attempt. Not to be denied, he pushed through for the offensive rebound and converted his second shot to tie the game.
Moultrie's energy has helped him record eight double-doubles this season. His length combined with his work ethic around the basket has proved to make him doubly dangerous.
Sidney also showed signs Saturday he is up for the challenge of providing more. He played 15 minutes in the first half despite playing at less than 100 percent due to illness. He showed a willingness to get into position to play defense, especially against screen and rolls, and to pound the backboards for rebounds. He finished with seven, which was one off his high for the season.
Sidney's willingness to raise his level is crucial because the 6-foot-10 junior can do a lot of other things that make a good team great. He can pass the basketball -- like he showed on a dish to Moultrie for a dunk and on a quick-hitter to Hood for a 3-pointer.
The play of Hood, who led his Meridian High team to a state title as a senior, has added a valuable dimension. The left-hander has shooting range out to 3-point territory, but he is equally comfortable taking the ball to the basket and creating mid-range shots for himself.
"I just had to keep being aggressive," Hood said. "I missed a couple of shots I normally make and I just told myself I wasn't going to stop shooting or going to the basket."
Hood attempted a career-high 16 shots, which shows he is developing confidence to be a key contributor for a team that has more than just three scoring weapons. Bost said the Bulldogs believe there are plenty of options that can emerge if one player struggles to find his game.
"Lately I have been playing bad, but they have been stepping up, and everybody else steps up when somebody is not playing good," Bost said. "That is a luxury we have this year. In previous years, we just had one-dimensional players, and I am not knocking them, but this year we have people who can create their own shot and get us a bucket at any time."
Those pieces give MSU as solid an eight-man rotation as you will find in the SEC. As MSU showed against Utah State, which made the NCAA tournament the past three years, it also has the resolve to make a stand and to show it belongs in the conversation with the nation's top teams. Now it has to take the next step and bring that mentality to the court every day for the rest of the season.
"We feel like we are one of the top teams in the country," Bost said. "The Baylor game is behind us. We wanted to win, we should have won, but, like I said, there are going to be better teams we're going to play against, so we have to use this game as a stepping stone to get better from the things we didn't do right in this game."
Stansbury reiterated his point that the Bulldogs have plenty of pieces after the Utah State game. He realizes the Bulldogs are an injury or an illness from having to reshuffle the deck, but he likes how his team has rebounded from a home loss to Akron and has found a way to win a handful of tough games in the first half of the season.
Now the SEC slate will test MSU's resolve.
"It says something about the different pieces we have," Stansbury said when asked if the win against Utah State was an indication his team is maturing. "Our point guard was basically ineffective. I thought Rodney Hood stepped up and was more impressive. He is the one guys who it seemed like nothing fazed him. Arnett also played hard. ... It tells you we have a lot of different pieces. Would we have won if DeVille didn't hadn't gave us seven points off the bench? Probably not. Different pieces, different times getting us through things."
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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