By MATTHEW STEVENS
Mississippi State men’s basketball head coach Rick Stansbury was asked Monday what he thought his team needed to do in order to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
His answer was obvious.
“We got to go there and win the SEC Tournament,” Stansbury said bluntly. “You can’t mask that enough. You see that enough, it’s obvious.”
The path for that goal to be met starts with a win tonight at Arkansas (8 p.m., CSS) in order to secure the second-seed from the Western Division in the conference tournament.
Mississippi State (15-13, 7-7 in SEC play) is trying to get its first win at Bud Walton Arena since a 70-56 victory in 2009.
At nearly .500 for the entire season and an RPI over 100, Stansbury knows the rest of the bubble talk for an at-large berth won’t involve his squad.
“I’ve had years where I’ve been on that bubble that I didn’t worry about it then but the difference, like two years ago when we won the whole thing, is we know we’re not on that bubble,” Stansbury said.
Wednesday marks the second meeting this year between the two schools. Back in February at Humphrey Coliseum, the Bulldogs prevailed 67-56 behind Dee Bost's 18 points and Renardo Sidney’s 10 rebounds. Sidney also had 12 points in that contest en route to collecting his second-straight double-double.
With a win Wednesday, MSU will sweep Arkansas for the second time in three seasons.
The Razorbacks (18-10, 7-7) are coming off two straight victories over Kentucky and Auburn with Arkansas guard Rotnei Clarke earning his second SEC Player of the Week award.
Clarke averaged 21.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.0 steals for the Razorbacks (18-10, 7-7 Southeastern Conference last week.
Clarke tallied 26 points in Arkansas’ upset of No. 22 Kentucky at Bud Walton Arena. He hit a career high 11 (of 12) free throws in the contest, including a span of seven straight free throws that moved Arkansas from a five-point deficit to a one-point lead in the span of less than a minute midway through the second half. He scored a game-high 17 points in Arkansas’ win at Auburn.
“Rotnei here of late has put pressure on the defense because it’s not just going out there and getting close to him,” Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey said. “You are going to have to guard him because he is doing a good job of coming off pick and rolls and stagger screens. He’s cutting backdoor and getting himself inside the 3-point line. When you do that, he’s finding layups and doing a good job of finishing them.”
The task of guarding Arkansas’ 6-foot guard will go to the combination of senior Riley Benock and Bost.
“I think that’s the key,” Benock said. “He hurt Vanderbilt and they got a win up there. It seems like the games where he goes, they go.”
Following Wednesday’s game, Mississippi State returns to Humphrey Coliseum on Saturday to close out the regular season against South Carolina on Senior Day. Tip is set for 1 p.m. and the game will be televised by ESPN2.