"I think I've seen this team gradually continue to get better, so whatever it was before is what it was. It's a different team, a new team, and we're just trying to put it together for SEC play."
Stansbury has the luxury of a little extra time now to keep putting his upgraded roster together for the next stage of SEC play. The Bulldogs (10-7, 2-1 SEC) have an early open date this midweek, and don't play again until Saturday afternoon at Georgia (3:00ct, SEC Network). While there is the natural notion of keeping on keeping on after a pair of impressive wins, Mississippi State players and staff alike will take advantage of this short schedule pause.
"It's hard to say right now," mused guard Dee Bost about playing/not playing. "Games are funner than practice but at the same time we need every practice so we can get better." Bost's grammar instructors might cringe at the comment, but his coaches surely agree with the sentiment. Now that Bost and center/forward Renardo Sidney are in action and have a pair of solid successes on the record this is a fine time to polish some aspects of the new-and-improved lineup.
"We need practice time," said Stansbury. "Normally this time of year it's not as important from a detail standpoint. This team, it's really important just because of where we are at this point. And we have a tough stretch."
A three-game stretch against Eastern Division opposition is indeed a tough task. Georgia is 13-3, 2-1 SEC going into tonight's home game with Tennessee. The East's Bulldogs are a turnaround-tale this second season under Mark Fox's management, already just one win shy of last season's total and ranked 24th this week. Mississippi State then returns home for a two-game stand, but has to play those games in just three days by hosting Vanderbilt on Thursday night before taking on Florida at noon Saturday.
Naturally the Bulldogs will be reminded just how vital these upcoming inter-Division dates are to raising State's status. Not that it's necessary, though. State players understand better than fans and media where they stand at this mid-January moment.
"We know we need every game from here on out and every game counts," Bost agreed.
Beating Ole Miss and Auburn counted for more than just the pair of Ws added to the record, though. State's December struggles, both on and off the court, were known too well around the roundball world, even if most realized that the January return of Bost would make this a much more competitive club. A lopsided home loss to Alabama was not the best way to begin conference play. Yet even in that debut defeat there were enough signs of team talent to get hopes back up.
Responding to a road-game challenge at Ole Miss affirmed them, and while a win over hapless Auburn was taken for granted the manner of MSU's win was further encouragement.
"I knew we were eventually going to get better, we've been having hard practices and everybody's been getting on the same page," senior guard Ravern Johnson said. "I knew it wasn't going to be long. The big win we had against Ole Miss, we said it's the time now that everything is going to click."
Speaking of clicking… When Johnson chucked in a pair of three-point buckets against both Ole Miss and Auburn it signaled that the veteran gunner is regaining his shooting eye after the most dismal stretch of his career. In fact his double-pump trey in the second half at Oxford might have broken Rebel backs, or at least their defensive approach, opening up the rest of the court for State to take charge the rest of the evening.
Even then Johnson wasn't satisfied and the day before playing Auburn he spent extra gym time shooting, shooting, shooting. "I knew my rhythm wasn't the same. Hopefully everything is back on track." Bost has the same hope, by the way, after Johnson ripped Auburn for 21 points. "He needed that game to knock down shots and get his confidence back."
Confidence is not something Sidney has ever lacked. The sophomore showed that by bouncing back from a 1-of-8 afternoon against Alabama to dominate Ole Miss with 9-of-12 shooting including a pair of threeballs. He came back for 15 more points against Auburn, and just as importantly kept hitting the glass hard. Also, teammates have learned to look for his quick passes and Sidney collected three assists Sunday.
What his coach liked best about the most recent outing was how Sidney only took a couple of first half shots, "But he affected the game. And it's good when you can affect the game in other ways. It'll be a continued process with him, but he's taken a couple of steps more in the right direction."
A direction that the Bulldogs intend to maintain now that they've advanced those first few forward strides. And as Bost said, it was a good sign when State didn't take Auburn for granted but put serious effort into getting the win. Bost added that there are still areas in need of work, such as handling full-court defensive pressure. Free throwing has been erratic as well. And there is just the matter of getting everyone into a more comfortable, confident collective mindset that only continued work will bring.
But, Bost noted, such things are easier to accomplish after enjoying some success. "I mean, it's a lot more energy in practice and intensity," he said. "We're competing every day, every time we step on the floor, so we get better every practice."
The Bulldogs returned to their practice schedule today after Monday's holiday. Stansbury and staff also return to town following a day spent scouting recruits for future teams.