Over the last two years Mississippi State has played its best basketball in the month of the March. The Bulldogs have reached the last two title games in the SEC Tournament and won it all in 2009. Needing to win the tournament again to reach the NCAA Tournament, many wonder if the Bulldogs can again pull off some magic in the postseason.
The Bulldogs (17-13) received a first-round bye with their second-place finish in the Western Division. Riding a three-game winning streak, the Bulldogs will face the winner of Vanderbilt-LSU on Friday at 9 p.m. (ct) in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
"Most of the time it just feels like we are clicking when we get into the SEC Tournament," said senior guard Riley Benock, the SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. "We are putting it together as a team and stuff and it feels that way this year. We have put together three wins in a row and two of them are on the road.
"We are definitely confident. Just having that feeling with your back against the wall and needing wins to get into the NCAA Tournament, it provides a little extra motivation for everybody."
Of course, with a season filled with suspensions and off-the-court news, the Bulldogs have put themselves in the position of needing to capture the SEC Tournament in order to go to the 'Big Dance'.
But the players say they feel no added pressure and actually feel the opposite.
"I feel like it's no pressure on us but it is pressure on the other teams," said junior Dee Bost, who is averaging 15.3 points and 5.9 assists. "We can play loose and go out there and have fun and win.
"We are real confident and I feel when we play well, we have the best five in the league. Ray (Ravern Johnson) can shoot and Riley (Benock), Kodi(Augustus) can shoot and do more than shoot. All of our pieces put together can make a run. Ray is making shots and when Brian (Bryant) comes in he is playing good and he gives me a lot of rest, especially when I can play off the ball."
After serving a suspension of his own, Bost opened his junior year when SEC play tipped off in January. While his return to the lineup obviously brought talent and leadership to the squad, Bost has also battled injuries over the past several weeks. His once-injured hamstring has healed for the most part but Bost is still dealing with an Achilles' injury.
"It is hurting and I can't move like I want to," said Bost, a second-team All-SEC selection. "But there is nothing I can do about it and I just have to go play."
As Bost noted, the emergence of Bryant off the bench has aided MSU's play of late along with the play of sophomore Wendell Lewis in the post.
Augustus is averaging 12.2 points and 7.4 boards, has remained steady for much of the season and ranks second in the SEC with nine double-doubles. But Augustus has received help over the past month from fellow post player Renardo Sidney. Averaging 13.7 points and a team-best 7.8 rebounds, Sidney has produced two double-doubles in the last two weeks as well.
But Sidney deflected the credit to the team's bench play for their recent success.
I think it's our bench and we've gotten good bench play lately," noted Sidney. "Brian Bryant, Wendell, Shaun (Smith), and big John (Riek) have come off the bench and played well. I think we have the best team in the SEC right now."
With Bost' shot missing of late, Johnson has more than picked up the slack. In his last season games, Johnson has made 26-of-44 three-pointers and is averaging a team-best 17.6 points on the season.
"Ravern has been huge for us," said Benock. "Anytime he is hitting shots and stretch the defense it is a big plus and it provides other shots for other players."
Of course, if the Bulldogs are to make a run in Atlanta, they will need everyone clicking on a high level, including Benock. In his last game, Benock admitted he passed up some open shots and said he's made a point to put in extra hours in the gym this week.
"I know last game I passed up a couple of shots," said Benock. "Before the game I didn't feel like my shot was where it needed to be and I was trying to create for other people. Yesterday I stayed after practice a long time to work on my shot and hopefully I will be able to straighten that out."
The SEC Tournament gets underway Thursday at noon with four games scheduled on the opening day, including Vanderbilt facing LSU at 9 p.m. (CT). Regardless of who the Bulldogs draw for Friday's game, they bring in a lot of confidence and hope for a long stay in Atlanta.
"We have great teams in the SEC but any given night anybody can be beaten," said Sidney. "We are just looking forward to playing and playing well."