Mississippi State's 2010-2011 season has become a case study in how talent doesn't mean much without cohesion. With their top two players suspended for much of the season due to eligibility issues and reports of dissent in the locker room, RIck Stansbury's team has gone from SEC West favorite to "Bad Loss" resume fodder just two months into the season. Despite All-SEC level talent at four positions, the Bulldogs may have already run their way out of NCAA Tournament contention midway through their season.
The Bulldogs' combination of Ravern Johnson, Kodi Augustus, Dee Bost, and Renardo Sidney give MSU four players that could start for almost any team in the country. However, only the first two on that list have been available for much of the season and the team's lack of depth behind them has led to some painful defeats. Additionally, Bost's presence over the past four games seems to have rattled Johnson's play. The senior guard's numbers across the board have gone down despite playing more minutes alongside Bost; Johnson is shooting poorly (34% FG, 57% FT), turning the ball over more, and recording fewer rebounds, assists, and steals.
The Bulldogs (KenPom #172, CBS RPI #176) have been dysfunctional most of the season despite having one of the SEC's more talented teams. Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney are an inside-out tandem that can give any team in the country fits when they're on the same page. Unfortunately for Mississippi State, they've only been on the court together for four games this season thanks to suspensions. Ravern Johnson and Kodi Augustus are solid players as well, but the small sample size of MSU as a complete team suggests that they can't handle the better teams in the SEC; both Alabama and Georgia pounded them in double-digit blowouts.
The loss against Hawaii may have been an anomaly for two reasons. First, the team faced long flights and jet lag on their trip to Manoa, which would explain their sluggishness. Second, 550 pounds of haymakers were being thrown in the stands the day before, courtesy of Sidney and Elgin Bailey:
Sidney was suspended for his part in the fight, but eventually rejoined the team. Bailey, on the other hand, decided to transfer.
So yeah, that may have put a damper on things. Unfortunately, we can't make one of the keys to the game "Have Renardo Sidney get suspended in the most disruptive way possible."
Key to destruction: Put the offensive focus on Augustus/Johnson. Kodi Augustus and Ravern Johnson are both very good players, but neither one has the ability to consistently lead this team to victory. When the Bulldogs had to rely on them, they often came up short - leading to embarrassing losses like this one. Augustus and Johnson put up 31 of the team's 63 shots and converted just eight. With Sidney and Bost out, these two had to put the team on their backs to pull out the win. They couldn't, and their inability to step up could be a major point of attack for the Commodores - especially if Festus Ezeli can shut down Sidney in the paint.
Keys to the game:
- Direct the defense around Sidney and Bost. Sidney is a good player who can score inside and has a nice touch inside the arc, but he's also prone to turnovers. He has yet to face a defensive big man like Ezeli yet, and will be vulnerable to foul trouble against the more experienced center. Bost, on the other hand, will be more difficult to limit. Expect to see lots of double teams and defensive switches if Bost heats up early and out-shoots Kevin Stallings's zone defense. However, if the 'Dores can shut down both of MSU's suspended superheros and put the onus on Augustus and Johnson to carry the Bulldogs, they'll be in good shape to pull off the road win.
- Use Jeffery Taylor and Ezeli to draw fouls inside. Lately, we've seen more dribble-drives from Taylor to get into the paint and draw fouls. That talent will come in handy against a pair of big men who have struggled with foul trouble in SEC play. Sidney and Augustus both fouled out of the Georgia game last week and are averaging 7.3 fouls per game between the two of them in conference play. Taylor and Ezeli can use their abilities to cash in for easy points on one end while knocking two of the Bulldogs' offensive talents out on the other.
- Wear down the Bulldogs. Mississippi State's thin bench means that the team is in trouble when starters come out of the game, either due to foul trouble or fatigue. Alabama took advantage of this and ran away from a tired MSU squad throughout the second half. With Bailey gone, the team is dangerously thin up front and while they are better stocked in the backcourt the talent there is young and unreliable. If State has to turn to players like Shaun Smith, Twany Beckham, or John Riek for important minutes on Thursday the 'Dores will have a big time opportunity to make a run.