STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi State's inconsistency in Southeastern Conference play this season can be traced back to one major flaw — poor defense.
So as the Bulldogs (19-6, 6-4 SEC) prepare for a two-game road trip that begins tomorrow against LSU (14-10, 4-6), coach Rick Stansbury is trying to make some adjustments following a stunning 70-68 home loss to Georgia on Saturday.
"Sometimes (the defense) has been good, but the consistency is not where we want it to be," Stansbury said. "You've got to rebound and defend on the road."
Ten games into the league schedule, the numbers are ugly. The Bulldogs are giving up 71.8 points per game, which ranks 11th out of 12 teams. Opponents are shooting 46.3 percent from the floor (10th place), including a whopping 41.6 percent (12th) from 3-point range. Mississippi State has also forced just 79 turnovers, which is easily the worst mark in the league.
The problems are surprising considering there's no obvious reason the Bulldogs should be struggling. They have three athletic perimeter defenders in Dee Bost, Brian Bryant and Rodney Hood and also one of the league's biggest frontcourts with Arnett Moultrie (6-foot-11), Renardo Sidney (6-10) and Wendell Lewis (6-9) patrolling the paint.
But a lack of depth has taken a toll.
Stansbury has routinely played with a seven or eight-man rotation, leading to a heavy load for Bost, Moultrie and Hood, who rank first, second and third, respectively, in the SEC in minutes played per game. Not only is fatigue a factor, but there's also some hesitation to contest shots because there aren't many options on the bench if someone gets into foul trouble.
Stansbury agrees his team has to pick its spots, but that doesn't explain the consistent issues.
"There's been times that our lack of depth has caused problems late in games fatigue-wise," Stansbury said. "But you've got to find a way to push through it down the stretch."
Mississippi State's latest loss to Georgia caused the program to drop from the AP's top 25 for the first time since November. Though the Bulldogs still appear to have a good shot at making the NCAA tournament, they can't afford many more missteps.
"We have to bounce back and I feel like we de?nitely still have what it takes," Bost said. "We just have to keep pushing forward for the rest of the season."
Beating LSU won't be easy. Though the Tigers are below .500 in the SEC, they've won four of their five home games in league play. LSU fought Mississippi State until the final seconds on Jan. 25 in Starkville before eventually losing 76-71.
LSU coach Trent Johnson said his team's good health is crucial going into the regular season's final three weeks. Justin Hamilton, a 7-foot-0 transfer from Iowa State, is averaging a team-high 13.8 points per game, but the Tigers also have a deep bench, which could be very useful when trying to wear down the Bulldogs.
"I'm just looking forward here to having everyone because, obviously, we're playing a team that's one of the most talented in this league," Johnson said.
Stansbury said he was relying on Bost, his senior point guard, to be the "head of the snake" and help the Bulldogs bounce back.
"We're going to play a really good LSU team — they're much improved and they're good," Stansbury said. "Coming off a win or a loss it's a huge challenge either way. When you get on the road everybody's good. There's just no margin for error."
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