January 27, 2011 7:57:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- It''s crunch time for the Mississippi State men''s basketball team.
MSU (10-8, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) will play host to No. 19 Vanderbilt (14-4, 2-2) at 6 tonight (ESPN2) looking to earn a major boost in Ratings Percentage Index in the first of consecutive home games against teams with RPI rankings in the top 20 nationally.
MSU will play host No. 24 Florida on Saturday.
MSU faced a similar challenge last weekend, when it was blown out at SEC East opponent Georgia.
With two more SEC East teams next on the schedule, MSU, which lacks a marquee victory, is looking to gain momentum before playing four of its next five games on the road.
The timing of the stretch will make or break the Bulldogs'' chances of making the NCAA tournament.
"I feel we can still play our way into it, but we can''t afford to lose too many more games," MSU point guard Dee Bost said.
Tournament teams, though, have all of their pieces in place by now and are built to navigate conference play.
MSU, by coach Rick Stansbury''s admission, is taking short steps in finding out what works.
Even with a .500 record in league play, Stansbury has left each game with recurring concerns and new issues to address.
One constant has been the team''s limited depth, which forces four of its starters average 33.25 minutes per game. Vanderbilt has just two starters averaging more than 30 minutes per game.
Forward Kodi Augustus'' early foul trouble at the University of Georgia took away the team''s leading rebounder and forced two-guard Riley Benock to play power forward. The experience and shooting ability Benock, who is 6-foot-4, brings to the court wasn''t enough to offset his lack of size, which contributed to Georgia''s 48-23 rebounding edge.
That kind of a trade-off would have been nice for Stansbury if MSU would have scored in that stretch.
Instead, the Bulldogs'' scoring woes that began in the Bahamas continued as they were held under 70 points for the seventh time in the past nine games.
As Stansbury looks for answers, improved offense could provide quicker relief as his team continues to mesh.
Whether the scoring comes from Brian Bryant, who is capable of providing quality minutes at the point to allow Bost to play the two, or leading scorer Ravern Johnson, who needs to rediscover his stroke, it would take pressure off Bost and center Renardo Sidney, who have combined to score 45 percent of MSU''s points in league play.
Stansbury doesn''t foresee shaking up his starting five to create a spark on offense because he lacks a proven scorer on the bench.
For now, he''ll rely on Sidney establishing himself inside and hope that can create room for their perimeter players.
Stansbury was critical of Sidney''s performance at Georgia, noting his ineffectiveness against the forward combination of Trey Thompkins and Jeremy Price. Sidney and Augustus fouled out of the game.
Sidney, who is six games into his college career, is going through typical growing pains, which is clouding his perception of what he''s doing well, Stansbury said.
"There''s no question that all of it ain''t matching up right and only experience and him seeing it over and over and over (will help)," Stansbury said. "We try to show him all that (and) make him understand what you think you''re doing and what you got to do, and see yourself doing it. When he gets in that game, there''s so much game-slippage, back from the way you used to play, so much standing straight up and down."
Bost said Sidney felt he played well at Georgia but admits the Bulldogs aren''t getting adequate looks inside.
"It''s up to me, Riley and the other guards to get (Sidney) involved earlier in the game," Bost said. "But it''s also up to him to make sure he''s working the post and getting deep post catches and not float out to the wing. It goes both ways. We just got to come together today and work on it."
Sidney is set to face an aggressive front court in Vanderbilt''s Festus Ezeli and SEC Player of the Week Lance Goulbourne, who is the fourth Commodore to receive the SEC award this season, joining Brad Tinsley, John Jenkins, and Ezeli.
Stansbury hails Ezeli as "the most improved" player in the league and said the junior will put pressure on the rim, a challenge Sidney hasn''t faced in a front-court player this season.
The Commodores are undefeated when Goulbourne scores more than 12 points per game. Goulbourne has 10 or more rebounds in four of Vanderbilt''s past five games.
"He shines because he''s tougher than nails," Stansbury said of Goulbourne. "He''s been a guy that''s taken them to another level because he can score, shoots the three a little bit, and he''s tough."
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