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MSU men look for four-game winning streak against Alabama

 

Brett Hudson

 

 

STARKVILLE -- The crater came in the first two weeks of January. At the time, a Mississippi State men's basketball team that had been offensively challenged was at its worst, taking three consecutive losses while shooting a combined 68-177 (38.4 percent) and 15-62 from 3-point territory (24.1 percent). The result of it all was a 1-3 start to the Southeastern Conference schedule, a jarring departure from the 12-1 record entering league play. 

 

One month later, poor offense and losing streaks seem like distant memories. 

 

MSU's active three-game winning streak, which brought its SEC record back to .500, has showcased an offensive revival for the Bulldogs (17-6, 5-5 SEC). MSU puts that streak to yet another test as it hosts Alabama (15-8, 6-4 SEC) 6 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network) at Humphrey Coliseum. 

 

"We're obviously getting a lot better offensively; we're spending more time on it and making it a priority," MSU coach Ben Howland said. "Fifty percent from the field the last three games is exciting for me because I think we can do better." 

 

MSU got here through multiple avenues. 

 

Sophomore guard Lamar Peters has received a lot of the credit, and rightfully so given the resurgence began shortly after he was reinserted into the starting lineup. In MSU's last three games, Peters stood out with nine assists in the home win over Missouri and 20 points on 9-for-17 shooting against Georgia. 

 

It all comes from a player who, in the same season, went 0-11 from the floor and 0-7 from 3-point range in a loss to Cincinnati; he also contributed to two of the three consecutive SEC losses earlier this season with four turnovers in 25 or fewer minutes. It was those experiences that have fueled his recent run. 

 

"I wanted to help my teammates," Peters said. "I didn't feel like I was bringing much to the table: in some of the close games we lost, I felt like if I brought more, we would've won. I wanted to help them because those guys are playing so hard, I want to be a good teammate and help them win." 

 

The attention required for a surging Peters has done wonders for freshman guard Nick Weatherspoon: he averaged 9.5 points per game in his first six conference games but has scored in double digits in each of the last four, averaging 13.25 per game. 

 

His efficiency has been on display in his last two games as he combined to shoot 14-22 (63.6 percent from the field) and post his best offensive ratings of SEC play. Offensive Rating is an advanced statistic that measure show effective a player is by taking everything from made and missed shots to free throw attempts to assists and turnovers and judges how effective players are on a per possession basis. Weatherspoon's. offensive ratings over. The last two games of 143 and 172 are the first time he has been over 100 against a conference foe; for context, Jock Landale (St. Mary's) leads the nation with an offensive rating for the season of 128. 

 

He was rewarded with SEC Freshman Player of the Week honors Monday. It's clear his play is accelerated by Peters' presence. 

 

"The two guards together complement each other well and their big guys are more physical," Georgia coach Mark Fox said after Saturday's game. "They've just matured and Ben's done a good job with this team." 

 

Weatherspoon added of his on-court dynamic with Peters, "It's almost closer than me and (his brother, junior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon), because we know we're the two guards and we have to know a lot of the same things. I learned a lot of things from him, that's how we get so close on the court." 

 

Speaking of the elder Weatherspoon brother, he has forged a different role in the new offense, one of more efficiency than ever before. In the first seven SEC games, he was averaging 12.5 shot attempts per game; in the last three he has cut that down to a total of 28 shots over three games but has made 16 of those shots to shoot 57.1 percent from the field. Because he's taking fewer shots but making more of them, his points per game of 15 has actually climbed in recent games after scoring 20, 18 and 14. 

 

Continuing it all against Alabama will be more difficult than it was last time, even considering the Crimson Tide held off a comeback bid to win 68-62 on Jan. 20. This time, Alabama freshman point guard Collin Sexton, widely projected as a top 10 pick in the NBA Draft, will be able to play after missing the first meeting with an abdominal injury. Sexton is second in the SEC in scoring at 18.7 points per game to go with 3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, the latter ranking just outside of the top 10 in the conference. 

 

Howland knows Sexton's presence changes this matchup entirely. Still, his confidence in his surging offense -- and the player widely credited for bringing it about -- will not waver. 

 

"He changes their team when he's out there," Howland said of Sexton. "Whether you're hedging screens or however you're playing screens, he's attacking that big. He's attacking that big and he's going right downhill. He's on the attack. 

 

"I don't think there's many people as fast as Lamar in the country; I don't think there's anybody. Sexton has a little more size but in terms of lateral quickness and speed, there's nobody out there. 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson

 

 

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