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March 7, 2011Mississippi State wrapped up its regular season this past weekend finishing up at 9-7 in league play and 17-13 overall.
With several critical losses during the year it is highly likely that the Bulldogs only route to the NCAA Tournament will be by winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament held in Atlanta this week.
It's a road that Rick Stansbury has been down before.
"It's a new season and for us it becomes a three-game season," Stansbury said. "I like the way our kids are heading into the SEC Tournament. We've won four out of our last five and three in a row. We've got tough obstacles and challenges ahead of us with the Vanderbilt-LSU winner. If you get through that then you've got Florida so it's some tough teams and a tough route to get to that championship game."
Two years ago MSU won four games in four days down in Tampa to earn the right to be apart of March Madness. In 2010 the Bulldogs fell just shy of going dancing as Kentucky's Demarcus Cousins tapped in a last second putback to force an overtime that the Wildcats eventually won 75-74.
State's roster is still littered with players that suited up on both squads including current starters Kodi Augustus, Ravern Johnson, Riley Benock and Dee Bost.
"A lot of the guys were part of both of those teams," Stansbury said. "One year we had to win four games and the other year we had to win three. Those guys remember that and there will be a time where we'll talk about what we've done over there. I think it's very obvious that it's no longer a 16-game season but a three-game season for us. We don't have to be the best team for 16-games no more, we've just got to be the best team for three-games."
The Bulldogs begin their quest to reach the championship game for a third consecutive year on Friday at 9 p.m. CST. Mississippi State has posted a 5-2 mark against teams on its side of the bracket.
With freshman shooting guard Jalen Steele out for the year with a knee injury along with the midseason transfers of Elgin Bailey and Twany Beckham, the Bulldogs' depth may appear depleted on paper. But Stansbury feels this team has more options off the bench than it did a season ago.
"It's probably no different than it has been before," Stansbury said. "We're probably playing the same amount of numbers that we've played. I probably feel a little better about our depth than I did last year. Those guys coming off the bench have played well for us and gave us some good minutes. I think what helps us is we've been able to twist some guys around in that starting lineup. We've got guys that can play multiple positions and that buys us a little more time and depth."
MSU closed out the regular season strong winning three straight including last Saturday's 60-58 home victory over South Carolina. While the narrow margin may concern some of the faithful it does not the 13-year head coaching veteran.
"We played well," Stansbury said. "We were up 13 with five and a half minutes to go. We had some turnovers and give South Carolina some credit. They jumped up and made some shots they hadn't made the whole game down that stretch."
The Bulldogs current win streak is the longest since taking three straight from Dec. 12-14 before Bost and Renardo Sidney were eligible to come back from their NCAA mandated suspensions.
Now Stansbury feels like his squad is finally playing to their potential and is showcasing their best efforts of the season.
"I think our team has had more consistency now than we've had all year long," Stansbury said. "I don't think but two teams have won four of their last five games in the SEC and that's us and Florida. I think we're about as consistent as we've been all year long and playing our best basketball right now."