December 11, 2010 11:47:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- It''s a familiar refrain: No margin for error.
A year ago, the variation Mississippi State men''s basketball coach Rick Stansbury used referred to the lack of front-court depth his Bulldogs had in support of Jarvis Varnado and the dearth of backcourt contributors off the bench.
This year, the MSU bench is packed with options. Unfortunately, none of them are available yet. With Renardo Sidney, Dee Bost, and Arnett Moultrie in street clothes, MSU has the makings of a starting five that could contend for a Southeastern Conference championship.
Right now, though, all three will remain spectators as the Bulldogs continue the daunting task of playing four games in four days. The first -- a 63-62 loss to East Tennessee State on Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum -- again showed MSU has a whisker-thin margin of error, if that much.
A layup by Micah Williams (18 points) with 13.2 seconds remaining and a missed layup on the right block by Kodi Augustus, who thought he was fouled on a hard challenge, on the final play helped drop MSU to 4-2.
An 8 a.m. wake-up call will greet the Bulldogs today to help prepare them for North Carolina A&T. Nicholls State and Alabama State follow Monday and Tuesday, before Sidney plays his first game in a MSU uniform in an exhibition Wednesday against Belhaven in Jackson.
Bost will return for the SEC portion of the schedule, while Moultrie, a transfer from the University of Texas at El Paso, will be eligible next season.
By then, Bost and Sidney might be gone, leaving MSU possibly to face another "Groundhog Day" moment with little margin for error.
The challenge for Stansbury will be to develop the mental toughness to play through adversity, fatigue, and doubt. MSU did that well last season, winning 24 games and advancing to the second round of the NIT.
This year, the belief is the Bulldogs can accomplish more, but first they must get through this stretch by developing some players who will be called on to fill valuable roles.
Bost is one of the SEC''s top guards. He can take over a game and he figures to be the take-charge leader MSU lacks. His ability to break down defenses should free up Ravern Johnson, who had a game-high 23 points Saturday, from facing sagging double-teams on the wing nearly every time he touches the basketball.
Sidney is a former McDonald''s All-American who lost his freshman year of eligibility due to NCAA suspension. He is sitting out the first nine games of this season. The hype says Sidney could be a program-changer, but will his conditioning live up to the talk. Sidney won''t be able to carry MSU when it travels to Hawaii to play Top 25 competition like Washington State, Baylor, Butler, Florida State, and Utah. But those games should be the perfect crash course he needs to push him into becoming the inside presence MSU so desperately needs.
When those two work into the mix, MSU should be able to compete with anybody in the SEC. The key, though, will be getting contributions from players like Elgin Bailey, Riley Benock, Brian Bryant, and Twany Beckham. The Bulldogs had plenty of good looks at the basket and just as many missed opportunities. They hit 17 of 20 free throws, but only one field goal in the final 5 minutes, 40 seconds. That statistic and the inability to box out on free throws and to protect the ball in the final minute spelled disaster.
Stansbury commented several times Saturday night about how difficult it is to win games when you can''t pass the ball to the block and get an easy two points. The ability of Johnson and Augustus (10 points) masked that deficiency for as long as possible against ETSU. But when you allow an opponent to shoot 60.9 percent in the first half and lead only 38-35, you''re begging for trouble.
A team with no margin for error doesn''t want to be in that position.
Adam Minichino is sports editor at The Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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