That game tips off the busiest single stretch of State's regular season, with following games for the next four days. Busy? Absolutely. Hectic? Of course. Yet, at the same time, something Bulldog players believe they can actually enjoy.
"This is going to be hard to prepare for, but it's a time we all look forward to," sophomore guard Twany Beckham said. "And Coach Stansbury says over these five games we're going to have to play a lot of people, and a lot of people are going to have chances to step up."
Which proves a Stansbury statement made this week, that players would much rather play than practice. These kids came to campus to play ball after all and in coming days every eligible and healthy Bulldog body will get as much game as they can handle. No wonder the players, maybe the younger pups most of all, are so looking forward to the stacked stretch.
Steele recalls his reaction when the pre-SEC schedule was finalized and he saw the five-day frenzy. "AAU," he relates. "I said it's just like AAU, games back-to-back, little amount of time to prepare but also you have to stay mentally prepared. So I treat it like AAU." Welllll, with one obvious difference. Summer ball setbacks aren't counted on any final record. These games, now, they count…and count for a lot come March when post-season bids are distributed.
"Oh yeah, we can't lose these games, obviously," Steele said. "We have to come out and play hard and come out with these wins in the five-game stretch."
No one need worry about this team playing hard in the stretch-starter. First, the Buccaneers are likely the best squad they'll face of the five; a veteran club coming off a NCAA appearance. "They've got some big guards, they made it to March Madness last year. So we can't back down from them, we have to play hard against them," Steele said. But there is another MSU motivation.
The Bulldogs still sting from their last game, a 61-59 loss to Florida Atlantic eight days ago. "We let one slip away that we should have had," Beckham said. "So I think now we're going to be ready to play." Play an entire game, he adds, which was part of the problem in State's only setback so far.
"Sometimes when we have leads we can't relax, we have to develop the mindset as a team to come out in the second half and put our foot on people."
Steele agrees the squad learned a lesson, the hard way. "It was a shock to the locker room. We realized that we're not that great just yet, we had kind of got the big-head since we won all those games close. So the next practice we got up and went hard and got that chip back on our shoulder like when we first started practice."
While that chip's weight is merely mental, there are the other obvious physical dimensions to what the Bulldogs are attempting. So, "We've kind of slowed things down in practice," Beckham said. "Coach hasn't really pushed us hard I guess to try to save legs for this five-game stretch." Stansbury has pressed some other items, though, and Steele says the team got the message.
"Hydrate yourself, get mentally prepared. Lock everything out and just think about basketball the whole time, don't think about anything else. That might distract you on the court, might cause a turnover or little things that might lose the game. We have to stay mentally focused."
And, to both keep the guys sharp of mind and sharper of gameplan, Beckham reports some extra installations over the past few days. Stansbury has been concerned about his offense getting somewhat static in a few areas, of players sticking to their position a little too much and the game bogging-down as a result.
"Coach has put in some new offenses to try to get the guards in the paint a little bit more," Beckham said. That means guards like himself, Ravern Johnson, and Riley Benock among the starters, as well as backups Brian Bryant and Steele. Naturally the backcourt Bulldog best at slashing and dashing is Dee Bost, but he won't be playing for-real until January. So until then the rest of the guard corps has to take on Bost's aggressive approach to offense.
Steele likes the opportunity he's been given so early in college. He's scoring 6.6 points off the bench in almost 16 minutes per game, and improving every instant he's on the court.
"Coach Stansbury gave me a whole lot of confidence. Just go out there and play the game, and he said you have the freedom. Don't go out there and hold anything back, just play your game. Obviously it's kind of showed on the court and it's helped me big-time."
Every available body will have to contribute in the upcoming stretch, which brings following games with North Carolina A&T (Sunday, 1:00); Nicholls State (Monday, 7:00); Alabama State (Tuesday, 7:00); then the Wednesday exhibition with Belhaven in Jackson. That one won't count on the record, but it will be one worth watching since it will be the final official debut of sophomore center Renardo Sidney.
"Dee gets to play, too, and Sid gets to play in his home town," Beckham said. "I'm sure there will be a good crowd." Crowds at the Hump should benefit from special $5 tickets that are available, as well as special admissions for high school and junior high basketball teams.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs themselves are ready to pay the price of specially-designed scheduling to get Sidney and Bost primed in time for conference play. Yes, this will strain and drain everyone…but then as Beckham said, it isn't as if Stansbury would be giving his squad much down-time anyway.
"I mean, it's not going to be practices, so for five game straight you just play!" Beckham joked. "I'm not worried. We're going to be ready to go for five games. I'm looking forward the challenge, but we have to be mentally focused, go in thinking we have to get better every game."