February 11, 2010 9:30:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Back home after playing four of its past five games on the road, the Mississippi State men''s basketball team faces desperate times.
During that span MSU (16-7, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) has lost four games -- all on the road -- ahead of a tip at 8 tonight against the University of Mississippi (17-6, 5-4) at Humphrey Coliseum.
Once atop the SEC West, the Bulldogs were flying high thanks to their 3-point shooting and league-leading defense.
Now, they''re clinging to their NCAA tournament hopes and need a win tonight to right a ship that''s drifting away from division contention.
The players know it, MSU coach Rick Stansbury knows it, and there''s no a better opportunity to get back on the saddle than tonight at home against a rival the Bulldogs have beaten once this season.
That may be true to the casual observer, but Stansbury disregards a 80-75 win against the Rebels on Jan. 9 and the effects it will have on tonight''s game.
"Everything is different" Stansbury said. "It''s eight games ago, different venue, so it really has nothing to do with it. They''re not easy home or away, so we know we have to be at our best."
Much has changed in the month since that win, and the Bulldogs'' biggest headache now rests on the aspect of their game -- shooting -- that helped propel them to the SEC tournament title last season.
The Bulldogs are 9-0 this season when they shoot 45 percent or better from the floor. That clip has been hard to come by recently, as teams have taken advantage of MSU''s lack of post depth and willingness to settle for 3-point shots.
But the Bulldogs made shots, scored in transition, and received a game-changing performance from point guard Dee Bost in the first meeting against Ole Miss.
On Saturday, Bost rebounded from a rough three-game stretch to post nine assists to just two turnovers against Florida.
Bost, who was in much better spirits at this week''s team media gathering than he was last week, hopes to build off the Florida game and give the team the revival it needs. He acknowledged his performance in Oxford (25 points, six assists) caused problems off the dribble, but, like his coach, he doesn''t think much can be taken away from the first result.
He believes getting over the hump comes down to pushing harder.
"We know in our hearts we can still win; we had a chance to win every game during conference play," Bost said. "We know we got to keep coming out and work harder to change everything around."
Ole Miss forward Reginald Buckner remains questionable for tonight''s game, which should be a welcome sight inside for MSU center Jarvis Varnado. The league''s all-time leading shot blocker was at the center of a zone defense that held Ole Miss to 33 percent shooting in the second half.
"I think that zone surprised (Ole Miss)," Varnado said. "They were kind of caught off guard with that zone because (Ole Miss guard Eniel) Polynice was getting in the lane and dumping it off. They stayed with the shooters and everything in the middle was mine. Dee was getting in the lane and kicking it out. We were shooting the ball extremely well."
While the Bulldogs have implored shots to fall, there is one statistic worth pointing to from the first matchup: free throw attempts. Due in part to Bost''s wizardry on the break, the Bulldogs shot 33 free throws to Ole Miss'' 13.
Transition opportunities, however, could prove at a premium as MSU starters are finding points of rest hard to come by in games due to the team''s injury woes and lack of depth.
In the middle of tonight''s ESPN-televised match, which is part of the network''s "Rivalry Week," are postseason implications. The Rebels could use a good road win, while the Bulldogs are in must-win mode from here on out. Either way, the pressure is on and Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy admits it''s difficult to stay focused amid the stories, speculation, and national banter regarding the NCAA tournament.
"We try to lay it out, but I don''t want to get too big into the big picture," Kennedy said. "There are seven games left and (at least) one in the (SEC) tournament. Eight games is a lifetime. A lot of things can change. Ask Arkansas, (which is now in first place in the SEC West)."