Opinion: Mississippi State’s bizarre season bears watching

Published 12:04 pm Thursday, February 10, 2011

Rick Stansbury’s basketball team would make for one heck of a reality show. Hard Knocks: Starkville would be an apt title.

The season-long carousel of woe has hit Mississippi State fans again and again with more drama that not even a trip to the NCAA Tournament could soothe. And that prospect is looking less and less likely all the time.

The SEC West Division is woeful. By the measure of the computer-generated Rating Percentage Index, which is designed to gauge a team’s strength of schedule and performance against that schedule, the West Division is the worst division of any conference in the nation. Ole Miss is 58th. West-leading Alabama is 96th in RPI, while Arkansas, which Mississippi State beat 67-56 on Wednesday night, is ranked 120th. State sits at 130, while LSU slots in at 213. Rebuilding Auburn sits at 283rd, the lowest-ranked major conference team.

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RPI is key indicator for a team’s chances at a berth in the Big Dance. And with numbers like that, Roseanne Barr has a better chance of winning “American Idol” than a team from the West making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. In comparison, Southern Miss, which plays in Conference-USA, is ranked 45th in the latest RPI.

It’s amazing that a Mississippi State program that has won the SEC West crown five of the past eight seasons has fallen this far from a team that was predicted to contend for the league title.

Chaos has ruled Mississippi State (13-10, 5-4 SEC) since the season tipped off in November. The Bulldogs were forced to play without star point guard Dee Bost and post presence Renardo Sidney, who were suspended by the NCAA. Bost was benched for dipping his toe in the NBA Draft waters and Sidney for extra benefits his family received during a particularly fishy recruitment. Sidney later was suspended for another game for an “incident” in practice.

Then, in front of a national TV audience in Hawaii, Sidney and Elgin Bailey decided to switch sports to mixed martial arts, and the pair had a throw-down that turned into an ESPN and Youtube sensation. Bailey left the program and Sidney, who has yet to get himself into game shape, sat some more despite a bizarre front-loaded non-conference schedule filled with more cream puffs than a bakery to get him eligible.

Lost in the brawl was State’s performance on the court, which stunk to high heaven. The Bulldogs beat lowly San Diego and mailed in miserable performances against Virginia Tech (88-57), Washington State (83-57), Hawaii (68-57) and St. Mary’s (94-72). So much for a tropical vacation.

The SEC slate wasn’t much better. Wins over Florida, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU have been the only reason for optimism, soured by a season sweep by archrival Alabama and losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia.

Then leading scorer Ravern Johnson’s critical tweets after a loss to Alabama resulted in a one-game suspension that has ballooned into one of the indefinite variety. Re-tweeter Sidney, who apparently has no original tweets of his own, was not suspended for repeating Johnson’s complaints.

The schedule gets only tougher from here. Road games at Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee loom, and the Bulldogs need all the momentum they can get before the SEC Tournament, which starts on March 10.

Can the Bulldogs pull it all together in the Georgia Dome? Even if they don’t, it promises to be one interesting ride.

Steve Wilson is sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. You can follow him on Twitter at vpsportseditor. He can be reached at 601-636-4545, ext. 142 or at swilson@vicksburgpost.com.