Easy, no. Simple? Absolutely.
"But we'll take them one at a time, and we're excited about our opportunity to play in the tournament," said Stansbury this Monday morning.
He and his team ought to be excited, for some encouraging reasons. The Bulldogs emerged at the end of an, to say the least, interesting regular schedule standing second in the Western Division. Not the winners this time around as a year ago, but still with the valuable bye-day belonging to seed #2. To get that day-off the Dogs also had to come on strong at the end of the schedule, and did. Basketball experts often debate just what ‘momentum' really is and what it is worth, but all agree it is much better to hit conference tourney time on a winning streak.
These Dogs are. "I like the way our kids are heading on to the SEC Tournament, we've won four of last five and three in a row," Stansbury noted.
On top of all these factors is one overriding fact: the 2011 tourney appears to be the most completely open and unpredictable in years. True, there have been recent SEC meets that have swerved utterly away from conventional thinking. In 2008 it was the still-astounding run of league also-ran Georgia through four games to steal the trophy and NCAA berth. A year later it was State turning that trick with another four-win streak in Tampa.
Still this year's event cannot claim anything resembling a clear-cut favorite. East and overall champions Florida would get the tentative nod from most observers, but the real consensus is that at least a half-dozen clubs could win three games in the Georgia Dome this time around. Of course, only four of those have the Thursday pass.
Stansbury for one says nothing that does, or does not, occur in Atlanta should surprise. One need only check the just-concluded regular season for evidence that all is up for grabs in 2011.
"I don't know what will be constitued as an upset this year. There's a bunch of parity and a lot of balance, and when you break things down there's teams in the West beating teams in the East that no one anticipated happening." And that was in the regular schedule, too. "Now, it becomes a neutral court."
A court where Bulldog teams have had their share of successes over the seasons, too. Back in 1999 in his first year as head coach Stansbury took a non-bye team to the semifinals and overtime with Arkansas. In 2002 State won three games and the tourney title in the Dome. Of course 2008 stands out not so much to State for the outcome, a shocking semifinal loss to that Georgia bunch; but for the tornado that hit town and the Dome itself while the MSU Dogs and Alabama were battling to overtime.
This week brings the first SEC tourney appearance in the Georgia Dome since that very game ended, in fact, with a 69-67 State victory. The rest of the games were played at Georgia Tech's arena. Stansbury recalls the sheer good fortune that a clutch shot in regulation by current senior Riley Benock, and some fouling in overtime kept the game going long enough that few fans had left the arena and were on the streets when the tornado arrived.
"I'm probably one of the last people who knew what was going on! What got my attention was the swaying of the jumbotron and stuff starting falling from the ceiling. My players had already stopped!" After 45 minutes in the locker room the teams returned for the remaining two-and-a-half minutes and State's win.
Obviously everyone would rather avoid such trauma this March. There will be drama enough on the court already as up to two-thirds of the 2011 field arrive thinking of winning. Realistically, too.
"Last year Kentucky was the favorite team on what they had done and where they were ranked," Stansbury said. "I don't know if you can look at it this year and say that with anybody. Florida has been the most consistent team as anybody, there's no reason not to favor them. But there's obviously several teams that can win that thing."
By break of bracket, the Bulldogs and Gators happen to be in the same half and would collide in the semifinals if they survive initial challenges. State awaits the winner of Thursday's late game between East #3 Vanderbilt and West #6 LSU, neither of which would be an automatic W. The Commodores beat the Bulldogs in Starkville way back on January 27, though of late the teams have been trending in opposite directors and State would seem the sharper squad now.
LSU did bring up the West rear, but only two weeks ago stung State badly with a 84-82 upset in Starkville. That is the only Bulldog blot in the final five games. Still MSU would have to be favored in either rematch, and for that matter State had a 5-2 record against the other five teams in this half-bracket.
"It sounds good, but none of those matter now," said Stansbury today. "The only one that matters is the next one and it will be in a different setting. We didn't play any of them in Atlanta!" By the same measure though the MSU coach generally welcomes the chance to play anyone in a SEC meet and particularly in Atlanta.
"We've won it before, we've won that tournament, we've been a good SEC Tournament team. Through the years we've had a pretty good approach over there," Stansbury said.
That applies of late to any SEC tourney, with a 6-1 record the past two years and the lone loss a still-controversial overtime setback to Kentucky in Nashville. The Bulldogs found themselves needing to make just one more free throw in regulation to seal a win, a trophy, and a NCAA bid. The freebie wasn't, Kentucky pulled out a last-chance play as improbable as it was illegal to force overtime, and the 2010 Dogs had to settle for the NIT.
This team also has to win the conference bid to go dancing, though in 2011 it is much more clear-cut as last year's Dogs at least were on the mythical bubble. Not this season. In fact some figure State needs to reach the Sunday round just to be certain of the NIT, though others believe a single win should secure that consolation prize.
Stansbury said today the magical run of 2009 has not been brought up by him to the team, though it will be at the right time. Anyway there are Tampa veterans still around who remember what they did and how they did it; as well as Dogs who endured that sinking Sunday feeling when State's name was not called. "So there'll be a time to talk about what we've done over there," Stansbury said.
"We've got some tough obstacle and challenges ahead of us. Whoever wins (Thursday), that is a tough opponent, and you get through that you get Florida." Which might be an interesting comment to both Tennessee and Arkansas as they are battling for a shot at the Gators of their own. Regardless, "It's a lot of tough challenges."
That said, the Bulldogs have toughened up a good bit in recent weeks after a stretch of both inconsistency and internal controversy. All that could have shattered the season, instead things have fallen into more productive places and Mississippi State can claim momentum heading to Atlanta.
"I like our team. We've won four of the last five, three in a row, and it's obvious we're playing as good as we've played all year long right now." In fact, Stansbury amplified, "I think we're playing our best basketball now."
Just at the right time, one could say. Because with what is at stake now, this weekend is absolutely the best point of a season for the Bulldogs to be peaking. As Stansbury reminds, State was not the best SEC squad over the longer course of the regular season.
"But we don't have to be the best for 16 games no more. We just have to be the best for three games."
The Bulldogs will have practices Monday and Tuesday, with the weekly press conference moved to tomorrow so Stansbury and guard Dee Bost could attend today's Howell Trophy presentation in Jackson. State leaves for Atlanta Wednesday and will practice Thursday while prepping for both Vanderbilt and LSU.