STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi State has a starting five that looks capable of a deep run into the NCAA Tournament come March.
The bench? Not so much.
With the grind of Southeastern Conference taking its toll on a talented but thin roster, coach Rick Stansbury is desperately searching for anybody capable of giving quality minutes as the 20th-ranked Bulldogs (18-5, 5-3 SEC) prepare to host Mississippi (14-8, 4-4) on Thursday night.
That's why sophomore Shaun Smith's brief burst in Saturday's win over Auburn was so encouraging.
The 6-foot-6 guard has been stuck on the bench for most of his two seasons, bothered by hip and wrist injuries, but he scored five points and grabbed a rebound in seven minutes against the Tigers. The production came at key moments - a 3-pointer when the game was tight in the first half and a pair of free throws in the final seconds as the Bulldogs sealed the win.
"There's no reason he can't do that against everybody," Stansbury said. "And if he hadn't of been hurt I think we'd be way beyond that point, but just because of his situation that's where we're at right now."
Mississippi State has been limited to basically a seven-man rotation the past few games since backup point guard DeVille Smith was sidelined indefinitely with what Stansbury called headaches and dizziness. Stansbury hopes Smith can return to the lineup soon, but no date has been set.
That's meant an even heavier load for the starters. Dee Bost, Rodney Hood and Arnett Moultrie rank one, two and three in the SEC in minutes played. All three average more than 34 minutes per game.
Smith's lengthy 6-foot-6 frame is beneficial on both ends of the floor when he's healthy. He's slowly worked his way back from injuries the past two months, trying to send a message to Stansbury with improved play during practice.
"I'm still here and want to play," Smith said.
Stansbury is more than happy to put him on the floor as long as he contributes. Sophomore guard Jalen Steele said there's little doubt Smith has the talent when healthy.
"Shaun will help us out on defense," Steele said. "He's just got to come out with the focus where he can play, be confident about his game, be confident about his defense, and everything will be good."
Mississippi State is trying to avoid getting swept by rival Ole Miss in the season series for the first time since 1998. The Rebels won the first game 75-68 in Oxford, with Reginald Buckner scoring a career high 19 points and grabbing 15 rebounds.
"Offensive rebounding was a factor in that game," Stansbury said. "We have to play better than we played the last time."
Ole Miss is coming off its second double-overtime loss of the season, a 69-67 setback to Alabama. The Rebels still have NCAA Tournament hopes, and two wins over the Bulldogs would certainly help their at-large profile.
It won't be easy. Mississippi State has a 12-game home winning streak against all opponents and won 24 of its past 27 home games against Ole Miss.
"We're a handful of possessions away from sitting here at 7-1 (in the SEC)," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "If you dwell on that, it can drive you crazy. The reality is there's nothing we can do about the first eight. All we control is the next eight, starting Thursday night. For us, it shows me our attention to detail needs to improve."
Kennedy said that starts with improving the team's free-throw percentage and turnover margin, which both rank last in the league.
Ole Miss had just five turnovers against Mississippi State in the first meeting, which was easily one of the Rebels' best games of the season in that category.
"I feel like once you win the first one, you kind of have the upper hand," Ole Miss forward Terrance Henry. "We always know all their calls. We know exactly what they're going to do. It's a matter of us going in there playing like we did the last time."