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Mississippi St.-Arkansas Preview

AP - Sports

Mississippi State was getting more attention for its off-the-court issues than its play last year when SEC action started.

There's been a 180-degree turnaround in Starkville this season.

The 15th-ranked Bulldogs open league play Saturday night when they face a surging Arkansas team trying to remain perfect at Bud Walton Arena this season.

After going 24-12 and reaching the NIT in 2010, Mississippi State took a turn for the worse last season. And it only had something to do with going 17-14 - its worst mark since going 15-15 in 2005-06.

Sixteen days before the Bulldogs opened SEC play last season against Alabama, Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey, who has since transferred to Southeastern Louisiana, fought in the stands of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii on Dec. 23 and had to be separated by teammates and coaches.

Just days before, Sidney, who had missed the 2009-10 season and the first nine games of last season due to an NCAA suspension, was suspended by coach Rick Stansbury for "an incident in practice."

The Bulldogs were also without starting point guard Dee Bost before SEC play started in 2010-11 after he was academically ineligible for the fall semester and had to serve a nine-game NCAA suspension for failing to withdraw from the NBA draft prior to the spring deadline.

The Bulldogs (13-2) have seemingly moved past all those distractions as they target a league title.

"It's a good feeling,'' Bost said. "We've got a lot of room for improvement, but it's all about basketball and winning. Everyone just wants to win."

Mississippi State rolled off 11 consecutive wins prior to a 54-52 loss to then-No. 6 Baylor on Dec. 28 in Dallas, but the team returns to action following a 66-64 victory over Utah State on New Year's Eve.

Stansbury said the break will serve to the Bulldogs' advantage as they face a defensive-minded Arkansas team that is first in the SEC in turnovers forced per game (18.2) and third in field goal defense at 37.9 percent

"We haven't played anybody this year who plays that way - who's going to try to cause so many turnovers, particularly in the backcourt," Stansbury said.

However, the Bulldogs' backcourt depth is their strength. While Bost has struggled with just 8.8 points per game over the last four contests - 7.1 fewer than his season average - the guard rotation of Rodney Hood, Jalen Steele, Brian Bryant and Deville Smith have combined for 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game during this stretch.

"That's the luxury we have," Bost said.

Mississippi State could also have a major edge down low against Michael Sanchez and freshmen Devonta Abron and Hunter Mickelson. Bulldogs junior forward Arnett Moultrie, a UTEP transfer, is averaging 16.8 points and 11.4 rebounds.

"It's going to be a tough matchup," first-year Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said.

While the Razorbacks head into league play without their best player, Marshawn Powell - who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in November - they have won their 11 games in Fayetteville by an average of 19.9 points following Tuesday's 83-66 victory over Savannah State.

Arkansas has won six in a row overall.

The Bulldogs' lone road game was an 80-75 victory over Detroit on Dec. 17.

"Anytime you go on the road, it's always a difficult challenge," Stansbury told the school's official website. "And Arkansas has always been one of the more difficult places to play. It doesn't help any that they are playing really well right now."

Mississippi State won both matchups against Arkansas last season, including an 88-78 victory in Fayetteville on March 2.

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