The Bulldog pulse ought to be spiking over the upcoming two-game, three-day stretch in Humphrey Coliseum. Vanderbilt comes to campus Thursday for a 6:00 (ESPN2) tipoff, followed in very short SEC order by a noon Saturday tipoff with Florida (CBS). Just getting a couple of good opponents on the home court would be meaningful enough any year. But the situation State (10-8, 2-2 SEC) now faces might bring a few weekend palpitations.
Because, Bost said, the Dogs are well-aware just how fragile their season stands after a 22-point setback at Georgia in their first inter-Division test. That was a game which would have done much to improve their NCAA case. Now? "I feel we can still play our way into," said Bost. "It's just that we can't afford to lose many more games. We're 10-8 overall and straddling the .500 (SEC) line. So we have to try to win each game.
"These next two games, Vanderbilt has a nice RPI and if we beat them and take care of Florida it should help us a little bit."
Make that, help a lot. State is about to host a pair of East squads that are on a faster NCAA track and receiving poll votes…which by the SEC's admittedly dismal standards makes them league heavyweights. 14-4 Vanderbilt is also .500 SEC but has a win over then-ranked Georgia, and just knocked off #22 St. Mary's, a team that stomped State 94-72 in Hawaii back in December. So this is an obvious opportunity for MSU to get a ‘quality' win on the record. And, against a SEC foe that has lost its last eight trips to Starkville.
Friendly confines are very much on Stansbury's mind, too. "You're at home, you've got to find ways to protect your home court, I don't care who is coming in here," he said. "Unfortunately we've got Vanderbilt coming in, they don't have many weaknesses." Other than perhaps a 1-3 record in true road games.
Stansbury is accurate in most respects. The Commodores are second in SEC-only scoring average at 74.0 points, sixth in overall shooting and fourth in three-point accuracy. And, naturally, among the league leaders in free throwing, a Vanderbilt tradition. If there are weaknesses it is in turnovers, as well as lack of steals and blocks. But then the ‘Dores do so much on the offensive end to make up for any defensive deficiencies.
"I think they've got the most improved player in the league in Ezeli," Stansbury ticks off the strengths. "Absolutely the best shooter in the league in Jenkins, and then everybody talks about Taylor as their best player." Those would be junior center Festus Ezeli, who has blossomed in year-three to be more than a space eater at 6-11, 255 pounds. He is one of the four Vandy starters averaging double-digits and the team's top swatter of shots.
Classmate and forward Jeffrey Taylor provides almost 15 points and five boards, while guard John Jenkins is indeed the gunner at 18.7 points (full season) and 56% outside accuracy through four SEC games. He's making almost four treys per night and has jumped into the league scoring lead. Veteran Brad Tinsley runs the show and scores as needed…and Stansbury had to be reminded, he'd left out only the current SEC player of the week in Lance Goulbourne. Not that the 6-8 forward has been overlooked in MSU's scouting.
"He's tougher than nails," Stansbury said. "And he's been a guy that's taken them to another level because he can score and shoot the three a little bit." Which, again, is something Commodore clubs always do.
For that matter so have Bulldog squads in recent seasons, ripping treys at record pace. But this winter has seen State cooling at the arc. In fact this week MSU is just (SEC only games) sixth in made threes and eighth in accuracy. The offensive shift has come from one intended reason, and one not. Since C/F Renardo Sidney was activated the Bulldogs have focused first on post points, and the big soph has delivered at a 14.0 average and 49% shooting. His 7.3 rebounding is no small matter either.
But then Sidney is also still trying to get entirely up to SEC speed, an obvious issue given lack of general conditioning. Even were he in better shape, his ability to pick up personal fouls fast would limit his game minutes anyway. Georgia big men took advantage of both, scoring consistently and ultimately fouling Sidney out with 15 points and nine boards. Those numbers showed what the big Dog is capable of when in the game…
…as well as on his game. Stansbury knows Vanderbilt has scouted Sidney's defensive flaws and will press every advantage there. So, "We'll try to show him on the floor and in film sessions, make him understand what you think you're doing and what you've got to do." Such as, the coach said, don't stay so static under the goal, upright and not in position to move as needed. Yes, this has been addressed often before. "Game slippage," Stansbury calls it. Not that any such slipping can be allowed Thursday.
"He's going to have to go against a different type of big guy this game. If you don't seal the right way or use your body the right way he's going to take advantage of it." By the same token the coach reminds, until this January the former prep superstar "never had to do it a day in his life" in terms of technical defense. Size and skill sufficed back then. No longer.
"And again, having the ability to get up for every game," said Stansbury, a comment in keeping with Bost's about team heart. The coach has seen individual cases of it. He praised Bost's strong effort at Georgia which netted 20 points and five assists. "Dee is one guy who competed start-to-finish, that's what you've got to have." Stansbury has given good reviews as well to forward Kodi Augustus and his rebounding effort, at least when the senior wasn't sidelined by three fast fouls at Athens. And no one doubts wingman Ravern Johnson's effort in taking long shots.
It's making that has been lacking for the veteran gunner. Johnson did add a couple of treys at Georgia but needed eight tries, and was 5-of-15 overall. So momentum from a sharp game against Auburn didn't go on the road, and Johnson is under 27% in SEC threeing. Yet, "He makes them in practice," said Bost. "That goes for everybody." And everybody is on their home court for these two key games, so the Bulldog hope is the longballs will fall the right way for a welcome change and loosen up inside pressure on Sidney.
Though, Stansbury is possibly more concerned with work at the other end of the court. Another facet to bringing Sidney along has been more use of zone defense than Stansbury likes. "We want to play man. You've seen more zone this year than we've ever played here." It has at least slowed Sidney's foul-out pace, but at the cost of 36.5% outside shooting in four SEC matchups. And, paradoxically, it has done little to aid MSU rebounding as the Dogs are getting wiped off the glass this month. Stansbury even joked about the two offensive boards credited his team at Georgia, figuring that was too many.
More seriously, "I think it's obvious against Georgia we didn't play with the toughness you have to on the road. They hit us early and we didn't respond the way you've got to respond." Which was all the more frustrating because the coach thought preparations were good. No, "I thought we had a great week of practice. But we got hit so quick and didn't fight."
Or as Bost would say, show any heart. "If we play with heart and we compete there's no way we should be losing by 20 or ten plus," he added. "It should be closer." Hopefully it was a simple oversight by Bost to leave it at trying to get closer, since the Bulldogs are to the point where close isn't nearly close to what they need. Not at this juncture of a fragile season.
"It's a mind thing," Bost said. "We have to go in OK, this is the game we're focused on. And bring your best to the table each play."
If the Dogs can do so, it would offer reason to take renewed heart for the balance of the season.