Practices at Mississippi State the past few days have been a bit shorter than usual. Coach Rick Stansbury has pushed the Bulldogs, but not hard. He's made them do conditioning work, but not as much as usual.
"I guess he's trying to save our legs," point guard Twany Beckham said.
Mississippi State, after all, is preparing to embark on one of the most demanding challenges a college basketball team will encounter all season.
Beginning with Saturday's game against East Tennessee State, the Bulldogs will play games on five consecutive days before finally getting a night off on Thursday, Dec. 16. The last of those contests is an exhibition game against Belhaven University on Wednesday, but that hardly makes the upcoming stretch any less imposing.
"It will be a challenge," Stansbury said. "But truth be known, players would rather play games than practice. And I promise you games are easier than practice."
Stansbury put the schedule together this way for a reason.
In September the NCAA suspended star point guard Dee Bost nine games for failing to withdraw his name properly before the NBA's draft deadline in May. Bost, though, can't begin serving that suspension until he's academically eligible, which he wasn't during the fall semester.
The fall semester ends today, which means any game Mississippi State plays without Bost from this point forward will count toward Bost's nine-game suspension.
Because Stansbury desperately needs Bost for SEC play, the coach tried his best to schedule non-conference games after the fall semester. The hope is that the Bulldogs can beat their next four opponents – East Tennessee State, North Carolina A&T, Nicholls State and Alabama State – without Bost, who averaged 13 points and 5.2 assists last season.
The exhibition game won't count toward the suspension, but Bost will be allowed to play in it.
"Back when we made the schedule it was more appealing than it is now," Stansbury said. "But we wouldn't change it. For us to make some things work and to get where we need to be, this is what we needed to do."
Under this plan, Bost will regain his eligibility in time for Mississippi State's SEC opener against Alabama on Jan. 8. But considering the upcoming schedule, the Bulldogs don't have time to look that far ahead.
Mississippi State will play its next four games at home before traveling to nearby Jackson for the exhibition against Belhaven on Wednesday. Immediately after that game, the team will bus to Memphis to catch a flight to the Bahamas, where it will face Virginia Tech on Saturday, Dec. 18.
The game will serve as the college debut for freshman forward Renardo Sidney, a former Top 10 prospect who redshirted last season while the NCAA investigated whether he and his family received impermissible benefits while he was a high school student.
The NCAA's findings resulted in a nine-game suspension for Sidney that will end a week from Saturday. The Bulldogs will need Sidney to be at his best the last two weeks of December. Along with Virginia Tech, Mississippi State will play surging Washington State in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu on Dec. 22. A victory in that game would likely pit Stansbury's squad against Baylor the following day. Also in the tournament are Florida State and Butler.
Then, on Dec. 29, Mississippi State plays West Coast Conference power St. Mary's in Las Vegas. Without Bost, Sidney will have to play a major factor in all of those games for his team to be victorious.
In the meantime, Mississippi State is focused on the immediate future. The Bulldogs are 4-1 with an ugly loss to Florida Atlantic. Without its two best players, Stansbury's team has yet to win a game by more than 10 points.
Mississippi State fans are hoping that changes this week.
"You have to hydrate yourself and get mentally prepared," guard Jalen Steele said. "You have to lock everything out and just think about basketball the whole time. You can't think about anything else that might distract you on the court, something that might cause a turnover or a little thing that might lose a game.
"We have to stay mentally focused."
1. Kentucky (6-2) – Doron Lamb is gaining confidence. (1)
5. Georgia (6-2) – The Bulldogs' last three wins have come by a combined six points. (5)
6. Mississippi State (4-1) – Ravern Johnson can't afford to have an off night next week. (6)
7. South Carolina (6-1) – Sunday's victory was huge for Darrin Horn's program. (7)
8. Arkansas (6-1) – Rotnei Clarke has scored in double figures in all seven games. (9)
9. Ole Miss (4-2) – Leading scorer Chris Williams is shooting 42 percent from the field and 28 percent from 3-point range. (8)
10. LSU (5-2) – Could the Tigers actually be competitive in the SEC West? (10)
11. Alabama (4-4) – JaMychal Green will return from a three-game suspension Saturday against Providence. (11)
12. Auburn (3-4) – Andre Malone averages a team-high 13.7 points. (12)
Terrence Jones, Kentucky – It didn't take long for the Wildcats' freshman forward to shake off his 3-for-17 performance against North Carolina on Saturday. A 6-foot-8 forward, Jones erupted for 27 points on 9-of-18 shooting in Wednesday's 72-58 victory over previously unbeaten Notre Dame. Jones is averaging 20 points on the season.
Arkansas – Julysses Nobles scored a career-high 19 points to lead the Razorbacks to a 71-62 victory over Seton Hall on Wednesday in the SEC/Big East Challenge. The victory was the third straight for Arkansas, which still has non-conference road games against Texas A&M (Dec. 18) and Texas (Jan. 4) on its schedule.
John Jenkins from 3-point range – The Vanderbilt sophomore has connected on 19 of his last 39 attempts (48.7) from beyond the arc. Jenkins, who is averaging a team-high 19 points, has made five 3-pointers in two of his last three games. Jenkins is also shooting 91.8 percent (45-of-49) from the foul stripe.
Ole Miss' schedule – Christmas is coming early for the Rebels, whose next seven opponents are as close to a "sure thing" as you can get. Starting with Saturday's matchup with Arkansas-Little Rock, Ole Miss' upcoming slate includes Mississippi Valley State, East Tennessee State, Texas State, Alcorn State, Southeastern Louisiana and SMU. Three days after playing the Mustangs on Jan. 5, the Rebels travel to Gainesville to take on Florida. Don't be surprised if they look ill-prepared.
Georgia – It's probably unfair to make negative comments about a team that is 6-2, but Georgia should be playing a lot better than it is right now. A one-point victory over a Georgia Tech team that's as down as it's been in years simply isn't good enough. Neither is a three-point win against Manhattan or a two-point triumph against Alabama-Birmingham. Not when you have players such as Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie.
Vanderbilt's point guard situation – Commodores sophomore Brad Tinsley was slightly exposed during Wednesday’s loss at Missouri. Tinsley certainly isn't an awful player, but he's not quick enough and he's not a good enough passer to be a star for a major conference team. Vanderbilt, though, doesn't really have any other options. Kyle Fuller has potential, but he's still prone to making freshman mistakes.
Patric Young, Florida – The touted freshman forward continues to struggle to adapt to the college game. Young has combined for just nine points and 16 rebounds in his last five games. Gators coach Billy Donovan said his staff is still working to improve Young's “basketball IQ.”
Vanderbilt forward Andre Walker has missed the last two games with mononucleosis … Renardo Sidney is expected to take Elgin Bailey's spot in the starting lineup when he becomes eligible Dec. 18 … South Carolina has tough games coming up against Wofford and Ohio State … Four Kentucky players fouled out of Saturday's game against North Carolina … Vanderbilt junior Festus Ezeli is averaging 20 points in his last two games and 13.6 points on the season. He scored just 3.8 points per game in 2009-10 … Despite 10 attempts, Alabama has never won a game on a Big East team's home court. The Crimson Tide play at Providence on Saturday … Auburn had to rally from seven points down to beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff Sunday … Kentucky will open the 2011-12 season against Kansas in the newly created Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden. The four-team field will also feature Michigan State and Duke.
THREE TO WATCH
Tennessee vs. Pittsburgh, Saturday – Two unbeaten teams face off at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Tennessee has yet to play an opponent as good as the Big East-favorite Panthers.
Auburn vs. Rutgers, Saturday – This game will also be played in Pittsburgh as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge. This is a rare chance for Auburn to beat another team from a Big Six conference, although predicting a Tigers victory may be a stretch.
Indiana at Kentucky, Saturday – The Hoosiers are one of the country's most improved teams. But they're nowhere near being ready to topple the No. 17 Wildcats at Rupp Arena.
- Mississippi State
- Rick Stansbury
- East Tennessee State