"If it gets any tougher, I don't know who you'd be playing," Stansbury said. But we're going to be playing three of the better teams in the East for sure."
In fact, the Bulldog coach isn't sure if this weekend's opponent isn't top Dog in the other Division. Georgia did take a setback Tuesday night, losing to Tennessee on a literal last-second shot, but are still at the forefront of a tight East pack at 2-2 SEC, and 13-4 overall. The other Bulldogs have even appeared in the national rankings this season as one of the conference's turnaround stories.
With good reason per Stansbury.
"I think they're the most efficient off team in the SEC. They can execute, they know what they're doing and they know their personnel." It's a group that has picked up fresh help this year, too, with Tennessee State transfer Gerald Robinson (13.9ppg, 4.2apg) now eligible and running the shot. In fact, "the difference ahs been Robinson," Stansbury said. "It's allowed them to take the starting point guard and move him to two, so they have two good guards that can break you down and get to that rim."
Three, really, since both Dustin Ware (7.4ppg) and Travis Leslie (14.5) are outside/inside talents. The trio combine for almost nine assists a game exemplifying just how well Georgia does execute. Their presence(s) have certainly allowed junior forward Trey Thompkins to take charge inside, scoring almost 18 points a night with over seven rebounds.
Yes, most State Bulldogs were able to watch their counterparts last night and despite defeat Georgia impressed Bost. "I just saw they play physical," he said. "They don't look to push it in transition, they just play physical." Which is easier to do with a 247-pound Thompkins paired with 264-pound center Jeremy Price in the paint. The Bulldogs were heading to the first serious preparation practice for this game after meeting with media. "We only ran over one play (Tuesday)," guard Jalen Steele said. "A zone play lob to Leslie. But that's a good team. Georgia is a very good team."
By the same token Mississippi State is an improving team, with consecutive SEC wins on the books and an entirely improved outlook. There's no mystery to why the Dogs have been able to go from a sputtering December squad to a January lineup playing much, much more to expectations, either.
"Oh, man, its way different since Dee's been back and Renardo (Sidney) is getting his game," Steele said. "We finally got the pieces we need to go deep in this SEC play."
Certainly putting those two key pieces together on court has made everything different, and better. In wins over Ole Miss and Auburn the point guard and center have combined for a 36.5 points average, when the team has netted 77.0 total points. Even beyond the numbers is just how their respective presences have changed everything about the way State plays offense…and how opponents are forced to attempt defending.
Of course, "It's different for us because we're still trying to get our chemistry and our rhythm down pat," Bost reminded. "So we need every practice that we can get." Still even with remaining rough edges to the revised lineup the results have been almost entirely positive.
"We're still trying to put it all together," said Stansbury. "But no question guys have a little more confidence, this is the first time they have their team playing." The ‘team' bit obviously noting how the Bulldogs spent November and December making-do entirely without Bost and mostly without Sidney. There's no overstating how vital getting them into a gameplan has meant, immediately, to expectations for State in SEC play.
"Three weeks ago it would be hard to be much lower," Stansbury said. "These guys have fought through a lot of things just to get to this point. Obviously when you have some success it's much easier." Except they didn't have instant success with the rounded-out roster, losing badly at home to Alabama. Yet Stansbury saw things others didn't.
"To our kids' credit even though they didn't win our guys were still working hard, they kept in perspective what we are and everybody getting back. But, no question, once you get a win it does a lot more for you." Such as how State came right back from a tough victory at Oxford to utterly dominate Auburn. "And we carried Saturday's practice over into Sunday's game. They kind of set the tone the first seven minutes against Auburn. And for the first seven minutes we played man. We wouldn't have done that two weeks ago."
Because, the Bulldogs have made extensive use of zone defending lately. Steele may be a raw rookie here, but "I know teams are used to (Coach) running man all the time. But the 2-3 gives us more time to breath on defense instead of chasing our man all the time. And we run it well." Well enough to survive some early hot Rebel outside shooting and stay in zone, too. Stansbury affirms how the more static sort of defense does keep from wearing the backcourt down too soon.
But then the biggest reason to play that way is the biggest Dog on the court. Sophomore Sidney clearly is more comfortable staying near the goal and daring the ball to come his way; while at the same time zoning both rests his easily-tired legs and limits chances for fast fouls. Then again, Georgia's big pair in the paint will test Sidney. "It'll be a good matchup just for him to show his skills," Bost predicted. "I mean, nobody in the league is going to go through him in the post."
Maybe not, though Stansbury still wants Sidney to make himself more proficient checking peers away from the block and watching for ball screening. As to matchups this week, "Thompkins is a load, not just in the lane but he can step out and make jumpshots. Whether we guard him with Sidney or not, we'll see. Most people make you guard him with a four-guy." Which would be senior Kodi Augustus, who while he might be having some offensive struggles in the revised lineup has been State's most reliable rebounder all winter. "That's one thing we'd never have said he'd be doing consistently, but that's what he's doing," Stansbury said. "And I think he'll gradually start contributing more on offense."
Because, the coach said, with game time Augustus' offensive role can be better-defined. Stansbury was relieved Sunday when senior shooter Ravern Johnson broke out of his extended scoring slump with 21 points and a couple of treys. Yet State is also gaining faith in Steele, the true frosh who is emerging as a factor off the bench. He had ten points against Auburn in relief, handled the ball well, and showed more defensive poise. "He's a guy that gives us more minutes at two, he can attack the rim on the shot and on the bounce." And in the process allow Bost to play point or rest as dictated by events.
"I come in and do all sorts of things, anything we need to help win the game," said Steele.
Winning this game is almost in the ‘must' category now for State, even so early in the season. Alabama is not only a game up on everyone at 3-1 but has the edge on MSU head-to-head. The rematch comes up quickly, February 2 in fact, and immediately after this three-game run of East opposition. No wonder Stansbury doubts there will be a tougher stretch on the entire regular schedule.
Vanderbilt basically gave two games away or they'd be undefeated. And Florida is picked to win it (the East). Then you go back on the road with Alabama. But, we just have to keep it in perspective."
Right. That would be the ‘one at a time' perspective. Though it's a little harder at the moment to keep Mississippi State players from narrowing the focus too much since as Bost said this is where the Bulldogs need to make a statement. And, more. "Hopefully we can keep making a run and keep winning."