Dogs Dive Back Into Season With Five-Game Run

Good thing the Bulldogs have had over a week to rest up. Because they are about to have as much work as any basketball bunch could want, when Mississippi State resumes their season with five games in as many Dog days.

Mississippi State ends an 11-day break this Saturday by hosting East Tennessee State (3-4) with a 7:00 tipoff at Humphrey Coliseum. And once the Bulldogs begin playing they essentially won't stop, going from game to game to game to…you get the idea. Coach Rick Stansbury certainly does. "It'll be a challenge. But truth known about it, players would rather play games than practice. And I promise you games are easier than practice!"

The Bulldogs (4-1) have not played since last Tuesday, when they dropped a one-bucket decision at home to Florida Atlantic. For that matter they have not practiced all that much either, with a couple of off-days entirely and a disrupted working schedule around their semester final exams. And even those sessions are now out of any ordinary routine because the Humphrey Coliseum court has been taken up for semester graduation ceremonies.

Still these are the circumstances Mississippi State itself put into place with some longer-term goals in mind. So, "It will be challenging in a lot of different ways, and maybe make us do some things differently than we would do," said Stansbury.

The five-day run continues against North Carolina A&T (1:00), Nicholls State (7:00), and Alabama State (7:00). Only four of these dates are true ‘games' as the fifth is an exhibition contest with Belhaven (7:00). But then that evening in Jackson is maybe more important, and certainly more interesting as sophomore center Renardo Sidney will make his overlong-awaited debut. State's second exhibition game of the schedule was moved to the mid-December date so Sidney could get some court time under his sneakers before playing for-real on December 18 against Virginia Tech in the Bahamas.

The Buccaneers are off to a slow start on the season, especially given a lineup of three seniors and two juniors with NCAA experience. They have lost by 23 to Kentucky and last night fell to College of Charleston 79-59. A pair of upperclassman guards, Mike Smith and Micah Williams, average 15 and 12 points while junior forward Isiah Brown contributes 12.0 points and 7.3 rebounds. But Brown is the only regular shooting over 50% from the floor, and the team is under 30% on three-point shooting.

Still, "They're picked to win that side of that league, they went to the NCAAs, and they went and beat Dayton," Stansbury said. "They're a veteran team that knows how to play, score in the block and in a lot of different ways."

Until last week the Bulldogs were doing some pretty good scoring of their own. Then the combination of a surprisingly successful FAU zone, and an off-night for guard Ravern Johnson, produced the first pothole of the early season. Though ‘off' night is a very relative term for Johnson; he still put up 18 points with a trio of treys made. But going into the game the senior guard had been scorching the nets at a 27-point average.

He'd also played all but 13 of a possible 125 minutes in those four games, which surely contributed to a 6-of-16 evening against FAU. And that night teammates couldn't pick up much slack, especially on the perimeter as no other Dog threw in a three. And since 1/3 of State's field goals this year, again, are long shots it meant trouble on offense. The Owls also matched MSU even on the backboards, not exactly a new issue for this team of course.

These and many others are items Stansbury would loved to have addressed in-full during the downtime. Except of course, time wasn't all that ‘down' with tests and changing venues and the like. "And today is a broke-up day," the coach said with split-team practices. "We've practiced a couple of different times, and this is a week you try to add a few things and adjust a few things."

Fans do understand how this came about, though. State did not finalize the pre-SEC schedule until certain when both guard Dee Bost and center Sidney would be eligible. The big soph comes off suspension next week; quarterback Bost must wait for SEC season. In fact he had one more exam left this week, but Stansbury assured the junior would be cleared for action by January 8. In the interim, the coaching staff cobbled together a slate with as many winnable November games as possible; but took some others and moved them to after fall semester's end.

"But back when we made the schedule it was more appealing than it is now!" Stansbury tried to joke. "But we wouldn't change it, for us to make some things work and get to where we wanted this is what we needed to do." As in, the five-game/five-day stretch. Obviously there will be some fine-line walking in the days to come with regards to pre- and post-game scheduling. Take Sunday's 1:00 game after a Saturday night contest, where the coach was not really joking about some managers likely sleeping in the Hump to be ready for the 8:00am walk-through and scouting report on NCA&T.

"And film after that, and pre-game meal," added Stansbury. As for the rest of the stretch with turnarounds almost as quick by an increasingly-tiring team, well, don't overlook the game-prep duties of the coaching staff. State aides did get some November head-start on the first few games at least, and demands for a NAIA exhibition foe are not all that daunting anyway.

"Honestly I don't know anything about anybody after the first game," said Stansbury.

What he does know is the need to be very, very careful about not burning-out players here in early December while not increasing the risks of another damaging RPI loss like last week. Taking riding his hot-shot Johnson, for a very good example. There is a possible solution but that depends on health. "The guy we need to get more minutes is Shaun Smith," Stansbury said. The second-year freshman got modest play as Johnson's backup anyway in some too-tight games, and is still hampered by an old hip issue. "He wasn't able to do anything the day before," said Stansbury. "But we want to find ways to get him more time."

The Owls gave State trouble with a zone defense that was effective, even against MSU shooters, because the Bulldog post players couldn't make them change. For now Stansbury looks to stay with senior Elgin Bailey as the starter with soph Wendell Lewis alternating. Between them they average 9.2 points and 8.8 rebounds. As for reserve center John Riek, "I just wish he could help us some, but I don't know," Stansbury shrugged.

So look for more paint-time from forward Kodi Augustus, who has put up four double-doubles already this year and is averaging 14.8 points with 10.8 rebounds. He's also blocked ten shots, which is almost twice his total treys made (six) so far. Yes, Stansbury agrees, he is asking the senior forward to do a whole lot and do it for a long time every game; as well as do it out of his natural position.

"But I think he has more and I still want more," Stansbury said. "Not that he hasn't been good for us so far."

Meanwhile, Sidney continues to prepare for his debut in just eight more days. "I think he's steadily gotten a little bit better, he's made some progress," Stansbury said. "It's a work in progress still, and I don't think he'll totally understand not playing for two years the difference it is, the emotion involved." Especially since Sidney will step on court first in his original home town of Jackson. So, so much is being expected and maybe even demanded of the prep All-American that Stansbury is being very cautious with his own projections now.

"There's a huge learning curve for him. I told him worry about playing as hard as you can play." Meanwhile Bost at least knows what the real thing is like, and he can play in the exhibition. But practicing him right now takes away work for the guards State will have to rely on both in this stretch and the five high-profile games from Dec. 18-29 that are crucial to the club's record and rating in tournament terms.

Stansbury will worry about that when the time comes; just as he will play these coming contests as needed. Whatever and whoever that involves, he means. "I'm not going to be spreading minutes around saving and resting people if it costs us winning a game now!"

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