Starkville looms as Stallings' final SEC frontier

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 11:27pm

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings isn’t trying to be demanding.

When the No. 19 Commodores play Mississippi State at 6 p.m. on Thursday, he has one tiny request of his team: just win.

Since Stallings took over in 1999, he has made five trips down to Starkville, Miss., to play the Bulldogs. They have all ended the same way — with a loss. Humphrey Coliseum is the only Southeastern Conference arena that Stallings does not have a win at.

“It would be really nice to get that one off our backs, off my back,” Stallings said. “The players took care of me last year at Arkansas because we hadn’t won there [since 1996]. I told them if they could do it one more time, I would be much obliged.”

Vanderbilt hasn’t won at Mississippi State since 1993 (eight tries) and has actually dropped eight of its last 12 against the Bulldogs.

“In the time I have been in the league, they have been the most formidable team on a consistent basis in the western division,” Stallings said.

This year, though, Mississippi State (10-8, 2-2) has had to deal with its own issues.

Junior guard Dee Bost sat out the first 14 games of the season due to missing the NBA draft withdrawal deadline and because he was academically ineligible. On Dec. 23, Renardo Sidney, who missed all of last year and the first nine games of this season due to an NCAA suspension, engaged in a fight with teammate Elgin Bailey in the stands at a tournament in Honolulu. Both players were suspended and eventually reinstated on Jan. 3. Bailey has since transferred to Southeastern Louisiana. Both Bost and Sidney have been back since Jan. 8, playing together in the Bulldogs’ last four games — all SEC contests.

“They obviously are just in the process of really putting their real team together,” Stallings said. “There are some growing pains. That is a tough thing to do in conference play. All of the rest of us got to do in the non-conference when we were playing, at times, lesser opponents. To have to put together your team in conference play would be a real challenge.”

For Bost, the long layoff doesn’t appear to have affected him as he is averaging 17 points in his first four games back. Sidney, a 6-foot-10, 275-pound forward, is averaging 14 points and 7.5 rebounds in his last four games. In addition, Ravern Johnson leads the team with 18.2 points a game and Kodi Augustus averages 12.1 points and 8.3 rebounds.

Though the Bulldogs suffered an 86-64 blowout at Georgia on Saturday, they are still a contender in the wide-open SEC West. They are in third place, just behind Arkansas (13-6, 3-3) and Alabama (12-7, 4-1).

“They are still a very talented team,” Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor said. “They have a lot of players that can score the ball. We have to be wary of that. We are going to prepare for them like any other team.”

The Commodores (14-4, 2-2), on the other hand, have won two straight and are coming off an 89-70 victory over then-No. 22 Saint Mary’s on Saturday. It propelled Vanderbilt into the rankings for the first time in two weeks, giving the Commodores their highest mark this season.

Still, they aren’t trying to dwell too much on the rankings as they know how quickly they can become irrelevant.

“As of right now, we are not trying to focus on the rankings,” Taylor said. “We are just trying to go out there and get a good win in the SEC. It is always nice to be considered one of the top 20 teams in the country. At the same time, we can’t really focus on that because you can lose as fast as you get into the Top 25.”

Instead, Vanderbilt’s focus will on getting that elusive win at Mississippi State. If the Commodores can do so, it will be their 13th straight victory against an SEC West opponent. They won their last five against the division two seasons ago, swept the West side last year and are 1-0 this winter with last week’s home win against Mississippi.

Still, the Commodores said they aren’t taken anyone from the SEC West lightly, especially if that someone happens to be playing in Starkville.

“I feel like you really can’t look at any game in the SEC like that,” Taylor said. “This year is a new year. We are just hoping to be focused and hoping to get a good game on Thursday. You can lose to anybody in the SEC on any given night so you can’t underestimate anything.”

Briefly

• Center Festus Ezeli (knee) and forward Steve Tchiengang (ankle) are still nursing their respective injuries and both were limited in practice this week, with Ezeli missing Monday’s workout and Tchiengang practicing lightly on Tuesday.

In addition, Stallings said guard Brad Tinsley was throwing up Monday night and spent most of Tuesday in the student health center, missing practice. Stallings, however, said he expected to have Tinsley in the starting lineup on Thursday.

Taylor greeted reporters on Tuesday before practice with a red blot in his left eye, which was poked last Saturday against Saint Mary’s. He said the bottom of his eye was scratched — “It is basketball. It happens,” he said — but said it won’t affect him.

Stallings said he expects to get Andre Walker (high ankle sprain) back “relatively soon” as well. Though the junior forward said it still might be two weeks.

“[The injuries] had been concerning to me because it is hard to get better when you don’t have some flow, repetition and consistency in practice,” Stallings said. “It is tough to get consistency when guys are out and are not able to practice and things like that. However, having said that, I have been pleased with our performance in games. We have weathered the storm in games, honestly, better than I thought we might.”

• Funeral services for the mother of senior guard and Father Ryan grad Chris Meriwether have been set for noon on Friday at Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church, which is located on 1203 9th Avenue N. in Nashville. Two visitations for Curline Meriwether will be held — from 3 p.m.-7 p.m. on Thursday and at 11 a.m. on Friday — at Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church.

Curline, who was in her first year as a Spanish teacher at Father Ryan, suffered a heart attack on Sunday and died on Monday. She was 56. Along with Chris, Curline leaves behind her husband, Chuck, a major league baseball umpire, and an older son, Jeremy.

“They are just such a sweet, nice loving family and it is really, honestly — in my opinion — rather atypical because everybody is close,” Stallings said. “There is genuine abundance of love throughout. Just a really cool family and family you enjoy being around because that love — you just feel it. You see that closeness.

“We are all devastated for them and for Chris obviously. It is just really a shame and very, very sad. We will just do the best we can of supporting them and trying to do what little we can do to help them get through it and know that in the long run we will be OK.”

• Vanderbilt women’s basketball player Christina Foggie was carted off on a stretcher on Tuesday after suffering a concussion in practice.

Team officials said Foggie’s injury wasn’t severe and the stretcher was more of a precautionary measure as it was Foggie’s second concussion in less than two months.

After taking a blow to the head on Dec. 1 against Bowling Green, Foggie missed three games before returning. She played in the next five before sitting out the next two due to post-concussion syndrome. She had played in four straight before Tuesday’s injury. The Mount Laurel, N.J., native was averaging 10.6 points in 14 games.

She is out indefinitely and will be reevaluated next week. The Commodores (13-7, 4-3) host Mississippi at 2 p.m. on Sunday.