Stansbury Sees Challenge And Opportunity

He claims not to have checked the latest standings. And honestly, at this February point there is little need to know specific games-up or –back numbers among the SEC's Western Division contenders. "All of us have six games left," Rick Stansbury said today. "And whoever can string together the most out of six is the team that does it."

‘It' of course means that must-have opening day pass at March's SEC Tournament. And it is indeed a must for any West club that wants to extend their season beyond Atlanta. Between Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Arkansas there aren't enough combined quality wins to merit NCAA selection for any one club, thus all must try to win the league's automatic berth. Which by expert extension means minimizing the task to three days of play in the Georgia Dome.

That is all the mathematics Stansbury needs to know here at mid-February. "And whoever wins the most from here on out will finish in that position."

But for the Bulldogs (13-11, 5-5 SEC) to position themselves as planned means shaking off a stunning loss in time for Tuesday's contest at Kentucky (6:07ct, ESPN). Stansbury's squad had hoped to be taking the best momentum of the season to Lexington and up to the last five minutes at Auburn certainly had a third-straight West win in their paws. That was before a meltdown which deserved the ‘epic' label and cost State valuable Division margin.

Now MSU must forget losing to a league lightweight and prepare to play a potential NCAA heavyweight. And do so on a home floor where for all their other issues this season the Wildcats are perfect. "That's an amazing thing, we're both going in with 5-5 records," said Stansbury who obviously does know some SEC numbers. He also knows not all .500 records are equal since Kentucky remains rightly ranked despite three losses in their last four appearances.

"They're really good athletically," Stansbury said. "They've got another level of quickness about them not many teams have. What stands out is quickness and skill level from all five positions." Not that there is anything new about an all-around talented Wildcat team of course. State saw plenty aptitude on the court twice last season in a pair of, yes, epic overtime battles that ended in somewhat controversial Kentucky wins. Most of the main names have changed for 2010-11, but that's not for the better per Stansbury.

In fact, for all the matchup challenges of last year's lineup, there were still "some things you had a chance to take away" per State's coach. "This year it's hard to take anything away from them because they're so skilled and quick." Indeed with 6-8 Terrance Jones this frontcourt is a step faster than the last, while rookie guard Brandon Knight is not much of a drop-off from his predecessors. "And when they slide Jones down to five and bring (Doron) Lamb in they have unbelievable quickness and skill."

At the same time Stansbury regards one of the few notable holdovers as key to Kentucky's eventual success. "(DeAnde) Liggins is the total difference now. He's become their best defender, he's a point guard converted to two/three now." And if the Wildcats are not quite as potent in the post as a year ago, neither do they have to work around a Jarvis Varnado any more.

Instead they now challenge Renardo Sidney and Kodi Augustus, a much less daunting defense around the goal. Of course State this '11 pairing is supposed to make their names on offense and at times it's worked out well. They were overpowering Auburn for much of the evening in fact, only to have it all fall apart and a 19-point lead turn into a three-point loss.

"We played really well, and not could have one but should have won," Stansbury said today. "But some things last 4:21 didn't go our way, we added to it." Most notably being a technical foul assessed Augustus after a power play in the post. "I think that changed the whole mood of what was going on. And I think it changed the mood of the officials because in the next twenty seconds Sidney gets his fourth and fifth fouls." Sidney left with nine points, 13 rebounds, and just shy of a third straight SEC double-double.

Augustus also drew five fouls and sat with nine points, and Auburn took advantage of their absences to rally for a most unexpected success. "Just every little thing that had to go right for them went right," Stansbury said. "And we had to add to that, we had to help them." By turning the ball over, missing shots and free throws both, and not covering Tiger shooters. Yes, Stansbury said, the technical foul likely came from Augustus' frustration over some preceding charge/block calls.

"But you have to keep the emotions out of it as a player." Then again that is something this 2010-11 squad has struggled with both on and off the court as emotions have spun out of control all winter. One obvious example was the two-game suspension of shooter Ravern Johnson initially for intemperate comments after the loss at Alabama and compounded by missed practices and classes alike. State survived his absence with wins over LSU and Arkansas; ironically he was activated as a backup at Auburn, shot 1-of-5 at the arc, and the team lost.

Asked if the senior might return to the starting lineup Tuesday, "I haven't made no decisions on that yet," Stansbury said. Johnson was also suspended a year ago for the regular-season home game with Kentucky, though he scored a team-best 20 points in the SEC Tournament rematch. Johnson hasn't shot as well this senior year as his previous two seasons when he was rewriting three-pointing MSU marks, but just his potential at the perimeter affects how teams defense these Dogs.

It has fallen to Dee Bost to lead this offense not only as a passer but shooter. He has responded with some brilliant efforts, all the more while playing the last three games on a painful Achilles tendon. Injured or not he's been on-court exactly 36 minutes each of those contests and at Auburn he had 22 points with four treys and three assists. He's also picked up the defensive pace and had three steals against the Tigers. Senior and Kentucky native Riley Benock has also picked up Johnson's outside slack while rookie Jalen Steele gets used to SEC starting duty.

Two years ago State scored a victory in Rupp Arena largely on sharp outside shooting. This team has comparable perimeter prowess and with Sidney inside—and not drawing officiating ire—a better balanced approach. Or it should. As Saturday reminded though, the Bulldogs haven't kept their balance on the court from either a tactical or emotional measure.

"We lost a tough game but you have to be mature enough to put it in perspective and put it behind us," said Stansbury today, then admitting "It's easier said that done. But you can't let one loss lead to another loss. It's difficult enough going up there on a high playing in Lexington, but it's obvious we're not doing that."

Instead State clings to a half-loss lead on 5-6 Arkansas for second place West with Ole Miss 4-6. Barring utter collapse 8-2 Alabama has the Division in hand so the Dogs, Hogs, and Rebels hang all hopes on finishing second and avoiding a Thursday tournament opener. Two years ago the Bulldogs did go on a, yes, epic four-win run through Tampa to get the automatic NCAA berth that they almost assuredly would not have been awarded as an at-large. But that team had the tools to make such a surge, not to mention an all-time poor lineup of opponents.

While this year's SEC isn't a powerhouse yet, it is still a better league on the whole and particularly in the East. And State doesn't appear ready physically or emotionally for four-straight days of play. The Dogs do have wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss already on the books and in fact get the rival Rebels at home this Saturday. So the remaining schedule does set up well in that regard.

But neither do the Dogs need to take a two-loss streak into that rematch. There is minimal recovery time from Auburn, as State departs this evening for the Tuesday game. A game against a Wildcat club that isn't enjoying themselves much these days and is only fourth in the East at the moment. Of course, "They're a good team, particularly at home. They play at another level," said Stansbury. "So it's a great challenge. But at the same time a great opportunity."

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