Will Mississippi St. finally reach potential?

NEW YORK -- Mississippi State and "potential" have been synonymous in recent years.

Only problem? The Bulldogs have been unable to live up to expectations.

Then you witness a game like Thursday's 69-60 victory over No. 18 Texas A&M, a co-favorite in the Big 12, and that word starts popping into your head again. Could this be the season the Bulldogs put it all together? Could the potential finally be realized?

Well, it's just one game, but it sure was an impressive one at Madison Square Garden in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer.

The Aggies didn’t have their best player, Khris Middleton, who is out with a knee injury for a few more weeks. But Mississippi State dominated this game from start to finish. The Bulldogs proved they can get to the basket with a veteran lead guard in Dee Bost (20 points), take up plenty of space inside with the trio of Arnett Moultrie, Renardo Sidney and Wendell Lewis, and get quality play from role players like Rodney Hood (a pair of 3s) and Deville Smith (8 points).

Dare we say that this MSU team has loads of potential that could be met?

Sure, the Bulldogs lost at home to Akron, a legitimate contender in the MAC. But the difference is that a year ago that loss would have been compounded by poor play instead of a improved performance.

“The one thing that we’ve had all summer and all fall is that this team plays hard,’’ Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. “We weren’t going to make excuses [with the Akron loss]. But that wasn’t us.’’

Sidney, who missed State's previous game against South Alabama due to a groin injury, was 0-for-8 against the Ags, but did convert three free throws. He also had two steals and a block. He was active throughout his 22 minutes, even if he wasn’t productive offensively.

“Sidney isn’t close to his ceiling,’’ Stansbury said. “He’ll finish six of those eight [in the future].’’

Smith had been out earlier in the season with headaches. He has steadily been worked back into the lineup and has been a game-changer for the Bulldogs. His arrival means Bost can play more off the ball and become even more effective.

Look, Kentucky is an overwhelming SEC favorite. Florida should be next. Vanderbilt, once Festus Ezeli returns, must be in the mix as well. Alabama has a veteran squad and is a legit top-20 team. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said he has his best frontline since he’s been in Oxford.

But the Bulldogs have to be in the discussion.

“We’re versatile enough,’’ Stansbury said. “What I like is that we were 19-of-31 at the free-throw line. It’s a good stat on the road to make more free throws than the other team attempts (14). We did that against a good, physical A&M team.’’

The Bulldogs have been an enigmatic bunch. They tend to be all over the place in the nonconference and then rally in the SEC to be a thorn in everyone's side. But there is hope that if Sidney and Moultrie can play together and produce in the low post, if Smith continues to get quality minutes and Bost continues to get his buckets, then the Bulldogs will be a tough out for anyone on the schedule.

That includes 16th-ranked Arizona on Friday night.