Mississippi State's basketball season looked like a out-of-control train wreck of melodrama and unrealized expectations about a month ago.
It was hard to imagine the team having any success — until last week.
That's when Renardo Sidney was throwing down monster dunks. Dee Bost was draining shots from all over the court. There was laughter. High-fives. Alley-oops.
Good vibes were in abundance as the Bulldogs beat rival Mississippi on the road and then returned home to crush Auburn. Rarely have two wins meant so much to coach Rick Stansbury.
"These guys have fought through a lot of things to get themselves just to this point now," Stansbury said. "Naturally, you learn some things through it, and it's brought some guys together."
And now as Mississippi State (10-7, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) hits the meat of its conference schedule, the Bulldogs are once again one of the favorites to win the Western Division. But the recent success comes with a caveat — Mississippi State's two recent victories came over opponents that are a combined 0-8 in the SEC.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs will play on the road against Georgia (13-4, 2-2) in a game that figures to be a much tougher challenge. Georgia has already beaten Kentucky this season and has two of the conference's most athletic players in forwards Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie.
Two wins may have helped Mississippi State's confidence, but Bost said the team knows the mini-renaissance is fragile.
"It's still a work in progress, you know," Bost said. "It's too early to say we're back."
But there's little doubt the Bulldogs are talented, especially now that Sidney and Bost are back in the lineup after various suspensions.
Sidney, a 6-foot-10, 275-pound sophomore, has immediately established himself as one of the league's best post players. He's averaging 14.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, dominating at times. But conditioning is still an issue, causing him to take occasional plays off, especially on defense.
He's played five games since his year-plus away from organized basketball. He missed more than a year as a result of an NCAA investigation and eventual ruling that he had received improper benefits. He has also been suspended twice for poor behavior — including a much-publicized fight with teammate Elgin Bailey in the stands of the Diamondhead Classic in Honolulu on Dec. 23.
All things considered, his rapid improvement is impressive.
"To his credit, he's taken small steps," Stansbury said. "It's just going to be gradual. There's no better substitute for anything than experience, him being able to see what he didn't do, experience what he didn't do, then showing that to him."
Bost, a 6-foot-2 junior, has been just as important, providing leadership and shot-making the Bulldogs sorely needed. He's averaging 16 points per game and was recently named a team captain despite missing the first 14 games of the season because of academic issues and an NCAA suspension for failing to withdraw from the NBA Draft by the deadline.
Bost's arrival has also allowed Ravern Johnson and Kodi Augustus to slide into their natural roles as complimentary parts instead of being asked to score 20 points a game just to give the Bulldogs a chance.
The improved chemistry comes at a crucial time. Mississippi State faces three of the league's top teams in the next two weeks — Georgia, Vanderbilt and Florida.
"If we can compete with them then we can compete with anybody," Bost said.
Mississippi State dug itself such a hole in non-conference play that it will almost certainly have to win the SEC Tournament to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.
But for now, the Bulldogs aren't worried about that, instead enjoying a respite from what's been a trying season.
"I think everybody has a little hope now, looking at us differently," Stansbury said. "I think it's apparent when we play together some, we have a chance. We have a chance and an opportunity."