NEW YORK – Within the first week of the college basketball season, we saw three of the SEC’s top five teams lose.
Mississippi State and Vanderbilt were dropped at home by Akron and Cleveland State, respectively. Florida went on the road and ran into the buzzsaw known as the Ohio State Buckeyes. The initial reaction was, naturally, that the SEC is once again down this season.
Don’t worry. I won’t hold it against you if you did. I jumped to the same conclusion. After the way that the SEC has struggled over recent seasons, it made too much sense.
Dig a little deeper, however, and the answer isn’t so simple.
Vanderbilt is playing without Festus Ezeli, whose knee injury essentially extended the six game suspension he is currently serving through December. During their loss to Cleveland State, John Jenkins injured his ankle, and while he kept playing, it was bad enough that he didn’t suit up against Bucknell. I’ve been as harsh on Vandy as anyone, but even I can admit that judging them too harshly before they play at 100% is a bit unfair.
Florida’s loss to Ohio State is about as far from a bad loss as you can get. Road games are difficult regardless of opponent. Hanging within seven of a top three team on their home court in mid-November is a promising performance.
Which brings us to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs completed their run to the Coaches vs. Cancer Championship with a 67-57 win over Arizona on Friday night, all but erasing the doubts created by the memories of that loss to Akron.
But for the second straight night, this was more than simply a win for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs never trailed Arizona. Hell, the score was only tied once, at 23. The Bulldogs jumped out to leads of 7-0 and 21-11, over-powering the Wildcats on the interior. Arizona did battle back to tie the game and only trailed by one at the half, but the Bulldogs once again got off to a quick start in the second half. Arizona wasn’t blown out by any means — the lead didn’t hit double digits for the half — but it never felt like Mississippi State ever lost control of the game.
“I am proud of our team,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said after the game. “And I am proud from this standpoint: I think when the game was on the line in the second half, we survived. … Our team dug in defensively and the stats back it up. We held them to eight field goals in the second half and we had a plus-nine rebound margin. Those are winning plays.”
Arnett Moultrie led the way, finishing with 19 points (on 8-9 shooting), 10 boards and the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. Moultrie isn’t always going to be a big scorer like this, but the threat of having two big men capable of putting up 20 points and 10 boards is part of what makes Mississippi State so dangerous.
The other part of what makes the Bulldogs dangerous is there back court, and not simply Dee Bost. Stansbury’s star senior shot just 3-12 from the field, finishing with eight points and six assists to along with three turnovers. And while Stansbury will disagree with my assessment of how Bost played — he called me out during the press conference, saying that the effort and leadership that Bost played with is what they need from him — the bottom line is that the Bulldog’s best scorer wasn’t scoring well.
And Mississippi State still won.
A big part of that was due to the play of DeVille Smith, a diminutive freshman point guard. For the second straight night, Smith came into the game and created a spark. Smith, who was the third-leading scorer for the Bulldogs during their trip to Europe, had seven points and a pair of assists, scoring six points and handing out an assist in a five minute stretch of the second half in which the Bulldogs pushed the lead from one to nine.
“[Being a spark plug] is something that coach wants me to do, but its also something that I want to do. I’ll do whatever it takes to win the game,” Smith said.
Smith isn’t the only role player that stepped up for the Bulldogs. Wendell Lewis had six points and seven boards off the bench. Rodney Hood had nine points and hit a couple of big jumpers. Brian Bryant add six points and helped keep Arizona’s slew of perimeter players in check.
“We have a lot of different guys on different nights,” Stansbury said. “We have people on different nights who can step up and do big things for us.”