The game referred to of course is Wednesday night's Western Division showdown of Mississippi State and Arkansas (8:00, CSS), a pair of teams with matching 7-7 SEC records. Should the Bulldogs walk out of Walton Arena with a win, they are assured of a free Thursday at the SEC Tournament and a shorter obstacle course in the Georgia Dome. That would be no matter what either State or Arkansas do in their Saturday finales, as the Bulldogs would sweep the season series.
State took a 67-56 win in Starkville back on February 9, which provides their current edge which is put up at stake this mid-week.
Yet, "It's no added pressure, it's what it is," Stansbury said. "Win and lock up the #2 seed. But, you can control your destiny by beating Arkansas."
What the coach more accurately means is controlling an opportunity to re-write potential destiny. It is for-granted now that only way the Dogs or—not and—Hogs can receive a NCAA Tournament berth is to win the SEC's own tournament and the league's automatic bid. Along that line the conventional thinking for now is given their current team's makeups both State and Arkansas have their best such shot by reducing the road to three dates in Atlanta. Thus, the nigh-frantic effort to secure a first-round bye which comes with a second-place Division finish.
After two decades as an aide and head coach at these conference clashes, Stansbury is thinking along conventional lines for 2011. "You'd always rather not have to play the first day. We've done it both ways, two years ago we won it playing four days; and last year we got the bye and got to the championship game." And lost, in overtime and in as controversial a conclusion as any SEC Tourney has seen. Ironically of course in 2009 those Bulldogs bolted through four fabulous days to take the title and auto-bid; so indeed Stansbury has done it both ways.
Which means he also understands the nature of such long shots better than most. "Would I rather play three or four days, you know the answer to that, and Arkansas would give you the same answer!"
For all the clarity a Wednesday win would bring the Bulldogs (Arkansas would still be in jeopardy of dropping as far as fourth pending other results), there would be another avenue available. Maybe. This would require State to defeat South Carolina at home this Saturday (1:00, ESPN2); Arkansas lose the same day at Ole Miss; and for the Rebels to have already beaten Auburn in the midweek.
That would leave all three contenders 8-8, and such a tied-trio would break in the Bulldogs' favor based on a 3-1 record against the Division foes. Of course this mild, mild West setup doesn't quite compare to the more chaotic East side with three teams in contention for the second slot, and no less than four the 3-4-5 positions. The only seedings set for sure are the respective #1s, Florida from the East and Alabama in the West; and South Carolina 6th in the East.
All great fun for scenario-spinning fans, and if Stansbury prefers focusing on the immediate he feels no need to lecture his team on such things today. They know already.
"I mean, this time of year when down to two games everything takes shape. You couldn't have said five games ago win this and lock up a second-seed. Now it's taking shape and players see that."
Speaking of shape-taking, while this week's East doings aren't of immediate interest Bulldog folk will be watching how those standings shake out as well. Media, too, as everyone attempts to project who will face who in the Georgia Dome and which of the must-win contenders has the easier, or harder, route to Sunday's title game. The West #2 will meet the winner of East #3 and West #6 in the latest game Friday.
West #3, now, has to meet East #6 on Thursday and then face East #2 on Friday. Realistically though the SEC in 2011 has not a single truly intimidating team to fear facing. West champs Alabama are showing signs of strain here in the late going, result of a thin roster that relies on defense and has crunch-time offensive questions; while Florida is not exactly overpowering on either end. In fact the Gators were beaten by the Bulldogs in Starkville 71-64.
So the odds of another trademark tournament run are somewhat promising for State again, if the Dogs can get that bye-day to rest up everyone. Leading scorer and sure all-conference candidate Dee Bost has battled a series of injuries down the stretch and the wear shows; center Renardo Sidney remains a conditioning question and assuredly does not need a four-day demand; and the backcourt will miss guard Jalen Steele after season-ending injury last week.
However, without Steele and with Sidney limited from illness, the Bulldogs were able to score a last-second dunk (by center Wendell Lewis) at Tennessee on Saturday. Even allowing that the Volunteers have been an erratic club themselves, with a losing SEC home record for instance, it was a much-needed boost after the Bulldogs were stunned at home by lowly LSU. Or perhaps it was just further evidence of how volatile the conference remains, and how entirely wide-open things look to be in Atlanta.
Whatever the calculations, Stansbury again keeps it simple. "It's the final week, and two big games for us."
Stansbury also said this morning that Sidney was still ill Sunday, and his practice status for Monday won't be known until around 2:00.