They took a long step towards that goal by swatting aside fellow contender Ole Miss 71-58 Saturday, also completing a sweep of the season series and thus earning that tiebreaker if ever needed. Alabama also did the Dogs a favor by beating back the third challenger for second spot Arkansas.
Still the West margin is minimal as the Rebels and Razorbacks are just a game back at 5-7. So Stansbury has to keep his club on topic for two more weeks with four potential pitfalls, beginning Wednesday night with a visit from LSU (8:00, CSS). On paper it ought to be a home-team gimme; on the court the coach is concerned.
"LSU has been in a lot of games and come up on the short end," Stansbury said this morning. "But they went on the road at Ole Miss and led most of the game, that's not easy to do. Forget the record, they're capable of beating anybody and we know we have to be ready. And we go on the road Saturday (to Tennessee). All of them are important games."
State has recent experience at how dangerous LSU can be, having been taken to the last play at Baton Rouge just two weeks ago. Guard Dee Bost had to break up a final Tiger perimeter shot to preserve a 58-57 win. However the Bulldogs were somewhat limited that afternoon at LSU. Bost himself was playing on a bad Achilles tendon and struggled, while guard Ravern Johnson was just beginning a two-game suspension.
Johnson also missed two more starts. He's back in good graces and put up the points against Kentucky and Ole Miss, playing better off the bench in many respects than he did in several SEC starts. Bost however has added to his ills with a cranky hamstring, playing ‘only' 31 minutes against the Rebels. Stansbury is trying to keep his top playmaker capable for the stretch run but it isn't easy taking the leading scorer, shooter, and passer off the court any length of time.
"It gets late in the season so you have to deal with the nicks and bruises as well as the opposition," Stansbury said. "We've got a few."
Somewhat coincidentally, the Bulldog team has taken some p.r. bruising in recent weeks as well. Johnson's suspension actually was not the biggest issue, either. Instead it has been the latest chapter in the Renardo Sidney saga, where the sophomore center has become something of target for regional and national commentators alike. Local folk, too, as a mishandled post-game situation Saturday aroused media room ire when Sidney—off limits to interviews since mid-December—was allowed to speak to the SEC Network after overpowering Ole Miss, but not to regular beat reporters.
Of more concern to Stansbury was how Sidney has been presented on the larger SEC and NCAA stage, such as the p.r. shots aimed State's way that obscured an excellent SEC basketball game played in Rupp Arena last Tuesday. Though, the coach acknowledged, this was likely inevitable given previous incidents as well as popular perception.
The irony is that for all his admitted issues, Sidney has become an increasing force on the court. The Rebels can attest after State's center pounded them for 22 points and 13 boards, his third SEC ‘double double' to date. It is exactly what was forecast for the former prep all-American when he came to college, albeit overdue for a variety of reasons.
"He's made progress, no question," Stansbury said. "There's still moments, just effort from the standpoint of defensively. And offensively, where (there is) lack of being able to do it when he gets a little fatigued. And you can't have lapses for two or three minutes. We still go through those too much. But he is better and he's becoming more consistent."
That consistency goes beyond bodily, too. Stansbury went on at length during the morning teleconference about what Sidney has gone through since arriving at State, though the physical aspect was the most obvious. "He walked on campus and picked up 50 pounds," Stansbury said. That contributed to the other aspect, how Sidney suddenly could not do what he wanted whenever and however he wanted to on a basketball court for the first time ever.
"And he's never had failure to relate to before. Even though he's working and over-worked it's not good enough, but he didn't know that because he'd never known failure." Now as the sophomore season, his first active year, plays out Sidney is again experiencing some successes. And "There's no substitute for experience, it can be good if it's a motivator. And I think I see some progress from him."
Whether others are willing to grant this center of criticism that progress might be another matter these days. Stansbury often says he doesn't pay attention to media, but it is obvious he's been kept informed of all said about his star soph. And as for increased critiques, "Well, there's nothing left out there that hasn't been said. And that's OK," Stansbury said.
"Like he and I talked about it, a lot of it is warranted. Is it true?" Which the coach didn't try to answer as there might not be a good answer at this point to that question. He has offered Sidney a way to make his own answers, though.
"You have an opportunity to change it all. It's understanding that it is about hard work and the level you need to be at. But, all those things are new to him," Stansbury explained. He added that Sidney already has that NCAA suspension served for proven financial benefits the Sidney family received while he was a rising high school star, based upon the young man's obvious potential. "He gets a black eye having to sit out a year-and-a-half, but basically he had nothing to do with that," Stansbury said.
"But that's come with the perception. Is it fair, I don't know, but you can't always judge what is fair, right or wrong, what folks are talking about. And if you don't like them, you can change them."
Stansbury expects to be asked for further clarifications of Sidney's situation, as well as Bost's health, this afternoon. Perhaps the larger topic of Mississippi State's own SEC situation could also arise as well.