March 12, 2014 9:03:49 AM
STARKVILLE -- All four coaches in the first round of Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball tournament are trying to manufacture momentum.
Mississippi State coach Rick Ray and Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings admit they're not entering the annual event with a lot of positives, but they said their teams will try to make a run that could set them up for next year.
"Our guys are going to go in there with a positive mind-set, and I know it's hard to do that when you're on a losing streak like this," said Ray, whose team will try to break a 13-game losing streak at 8:30 tonight when it plays Vanderbilt (11-19, 7-11 SEC) in an opening-round game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. "We've got to have a couple upbeat and short practices here and make sure our guys feel good going into it."
MSU (13-18, 3-15) can tie the school record with a 14th-consecutive loss. The Bulldogs hope the clean slate of postseason gives them something to play for as they finish their second year of rebuilding under Ray.
"It's a brand new start, and hopefully we can get a couple wins so we have something to do into next season with," MSU freshman point guard IJ Ready said.
Vanderbilt won the tournament two years ago under Stallings. The 14-year veteran said he never is sure when if his team will catch fire or go quietly in the one-and-done format.
"You win one and maybe you get on a roll," Stallings said. "There's never been anything where we sense anything before the game. What happens is you get in the games and that confidence becomes contagious and it carries you through some or all of the weekend. Never in the prior days."
Vanderbilt defeated MSU 55-49 on Feb. 1 in Nashville, Tenn. Sophomore guard Fred Thomas paced MSU with 16 points, but the Bulldogs' other four starters scored only 22 points. Ray knows his team will have to do a better job defending the Commodores' structured sets.
"Kevin Stallings is one of the better coaches in the nation, and definitely in the SEC," Ray said. "He really does a great job of Xs and Os and getting his guys to execute. The thing you worry about when you play a Kevin Stallings team is just how well prepared they'll be and executing offensively and defensively."
Just as MSU has struggled with a lack of depth, Vanderbilt is working with just seven scholarship players. The Commodores lost three players in the offseason. One more -- leading scorer Kedren Johnson -- was suspended for the season. Vanderbilt starting center Josh Henderson suffered a season-ending injury earlier in the year, and Eric McClellan, who was the team's leading scorer, was dismissed before the start of the SEC schedule. However, Stallings can rely on veterans Dai-Jon Parker, Kyle Fuller and Rod Odom for consistent minutes. All three average more than 37 minutes a game.
"Our defense has been good enough to win all but one game this season," Stallings said. "Our offense has not been what we need it to be, and we need to get that rectified here soon."
Odom leads Vanderbilt with 13.4 points per game, but 6-foot-10 Damian Jones (11.1 ppg., 5.7 rebounds per game) has the attention of Ray and his coaching staff.
"Damien Jones got in early foul trouble against us and really wasn't on the court much in the first half, but he's such a long physical presence," Ray said. "We'll have to find a way to guard all their sets. They have so many sets, and you can't walk through all their sets. What you have to do is rely on your principles, so that will be really important."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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