Despite back-to-back wins over Southeastern Louisiana and Bethune-Cookman this week, Mississippi State did little to assuage the myopic voters who had dropped them from the Top 25 following their season opening loss to Rider.
Can you blame the voters?
Here was the 18th-ranked team in the nation losing to a Rider team that just six days later was blown out by 33 at Virginia, and later dismantled by an overrated Kentucky squad, 92-63.
To make matters worse the Bulldogs have faced a multitude of injuries, and only one player from Coach Rick Stansbury’s heralded freshman class has scene playing time (center Wendell Lewis , who scored his first career points against Southeastern Louisiana).
Following the Rider loss, junior forward Kodi Augustus called out Stansbury for benching him for most of the game, saying “I want to be out there helping, who don’t?”
“Crazy, I didn’t even play; I couldn’t get into a groove,” Augustus fumed. “I get subbed, every time I look over my shoulder I’m coming out the game.”
Augustus received a two-game suspension for his postgame outburst, further depleting the Bulldogs’ frontcourt that was already without junior Elgin Bailey, and highly touted freshmen John Riek and Renardo Sidney.
Still, Mississippi State will have plenty of opportunities to break into the rankings, starting with a date with UCLA on Dec. 12 in Anaheim, Calif., before their conference opener at Ole Miss on Jan 9.
Here are three reasons the Bulldogs will rebound:
1. The lack of depth (for now).
Riek is in the midst of serving a nine-game suspension for his ambiguous offseason amateurism, while fellow freshman Shaughnessy Smith is out with a hip injury.
Several key returnees including Dee Bost, Riley Benock, and Bailey are also nursing injuries.
Still, the Bulldogs’ biggest concern has been Sidney’s eligibility.
The enigmatic freshmen is being forced to sit out while the NCAA launches an investigation into his family’s financial records.
In the game against Rider, Stansbury was forced to play a three-, sometimes four-guard lineup with Jarvis Varnado in the middle. With Augustus and Romero Osby only playing a combined 26 minutes, Stansbury implemented junior Phil Turner into the frontcourt rotation.
While Turner is an above-average rebounder for his position, he struggles in the paint against bigger threes and fours. Inserting Sidney and Riek into the lineup allows Stansbury to switch Turner back to his natural two-guard position.
The Bulldogs won’t have to rely so much on the rebounding of the All-American Varnado who, at 11 rebounds per game, has been cleaning the boards with Monk -like obstinacy.
The partisan rims will switch parties.
Rider was just hot.
The Broncs shot over 50 percent from the floor, while hitting 10 threes in the game. More importantly they only committed six turnovers.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs struggled on the offensive end, shooting just 35 percent in the second half. At halftime Rider clung to a two point lead, but outscored the Bulldogs 44-32 in the final period.
Mississippi State flirted with a comeback midway through the second half, as Varnado’s jumper with 12:38 remaining cut the lead to four, 59-55, before an 11-4 Broncs run out the game out of reach.
Sharpshooter Ravern Johnson was 4-of-11 from the field, including just 2-of-8 from beyond the arc, and finished with 10 points. Last season, he shot nearly 40 percent from the three.
Senior guard Barry Stewart also struggled to find his stroke, going just 2-of-10.
Johnson managed to salvage his shooting touch the following game, dropping a cool 17 on Southeastern Louisiana.
Augustus’ words will serve as a rallying cry.
Maybe Augustus’ comments after the Rider loss were exactly what the Bulldogs needed to hear. Well, at some of them.
The kid was mostly upset with his lack of playing time. After all, he only played 15 minutes, finishing with nine points and four rebounds.
Augustus later publicly apologized and sure the kid could have handled the situation better, but what player doesn’t feel they can contribute when their team is down. Frustration from the disappointing loss boiled over into postgame sound bites where Augustus apparently pointed the finger at his coach.
In fact, he was calling out his teammates, challenging them to play to their potential.
“We’re preseason ranked No. 18 in the country,” Augustus said. “We’re not supposed to lose our first game.”
Judging by their play the last two games, his words got through to the rest of the Bulldogs.