Bulldogs Resume Play With Prime-Time Matchup

He expected this to be a prime-time matchup as soon as the schedule was set. And nothing Rick Stansbury has seen from West Virginia, not to mention his own Bulldog team, has changed his mind since. "This is a big game early in the year. And it's a great opportunity for us. Its two teams balanced in a lot of areas."

Meaning, basketball fans will be tuned into Saturday evening's inter-conference matchup as Mississippi State (7-1) hosts the Mountaineers (4-1) as part of the Big East/SEC Challenge. Tipoff is 8:00. All the dozen SEC programs are participating in this year's made-for-TV match of the leagues.

And this time, Stansbury's squad has drawn a home game, which technically is the first visit ever by an active Big East member to campus. "We've got a great opportunity. One of the better programs in the country coming here."

Though it needs noting, Mississippi State is the program carrying the ranking. The Bulldogs moved up to #21 in the writer's poll this week, on the strength of a six-game win streak that began November 12. The Mountaineers are among the top contenders in the Big East but don't yet carry a number in front of the name.

They do, however, have something the Bulldogs don't this year. State's only loss came November 9 at home to Akron 68-58. West Virginia more recently thumped the Zips.

"First thing you know about (West Virginia), that team that beat us they had them down 23 at halftime and beat them 21," Stansbury said. "Akron was playing without their starting point guard, but still you get that team down 23 at halftime you're pretty good."

Pretty big, too. The Mountaineers will start a frontcourt featuring two 260-pounders in Deniz Kilicli (6-9) and Kevin Jones (6-8). Size isn't all they bring to the gameplan, though.

"The four-man (Jones) shoots threes and posts up," Stansbury said. And rebounds, with averages of 21.0 points and 12.2 boards. "And the big Turkey kid (Kilicli) is a load in there, he shoots with both hands." Two more starters also score in double-digits out of a backcourt that is settling in after a slow start.

"They've defined some things a lot better," said Stansbury. "They're getting a lot better point guard play." That would be from freshman Jabarie Hinds, a southpaw with 4.2 assists and 3.2 steals to go with almost a dozen points-per. Another frosh starts at forward and more young players rotate.

"But they have the nucleus of veterans. They're going to defend you and rebound that basketball. This is going to be a heck of a challenge for everybody."

Of course the Bulldogs have had their own early season challenges and beyond a still-curious letdown against Akron on the home court they've come up with the right responses since. Most notably, in knocking off Texas A&M and Arizona in Madison Square Garden for the wins that put State in the polls. Stansbury's squad has not been quite as impressive since against lesser competition, with qualifying circumstances such as both starting big men sitting out two complete games.

"It's obvious the last week we didn't keep progressing the way you want to," Stansbury said. Even their much-needed days off since Sunday's 82-59 rout of North Texas have come at a small cost of losing a little practice and playing time. It's all the annual fall semester trade-offs, and motivation for this matchup ought to be easy.

Besides, winning is contagious and the Bulldogs have caught that fever. Or as Stansbury said, "We've gained some confidence, and playing that way that will help us. Naturally there's a game along the way you hope you'd won.

"We have a ways to go, we have to get more consistent executing and defending. But the biggest thing is I've been able to give guys experience some different ways."

That refers to the sideline time for big forward Arnett Moultrie and center Renardo Sidney, who returned to the lineup Sunday for 30 and 20 minutes respectively and 29 combined points. Moultrie had 20 of them, half from the free-throw line in one of the remarkable side-stories to the season so far. He's right at 89% accuracy from the foul line and getting plenty of chances to show it.

More obvious is his 16.0 point and 10.8 rebound average as the junior transfer pursues his double-double ambitions after sitting out last season. "We've found he's a pretty good player," Stansbury dead-panned. "Not a day goes by he doesn't work after practice, and it shows." The only weak points in Moultrie's game has been modest 48% shooting…though the 6-10 guy has hit a pair of treys in three tries.

Not that he wants the best board-man spending too much time outside, but "I'm starting to gain more confidence in him shooting from the three-point line," the coach said. Moultrie will draw Jones in a primo matchup of top power forwards. "He'll be the best four-guy we've faced."

But it's also clear Bulldog opponents are going to have to face one of the finest freshmen forwards to call the Hump home in many years. Rookie Rodney Hood is contributing 13.0 points and over five boards, and his 55% shooting is by far best of the full-time starters. Not only that, Hood is right behind point guard Dee Bost for the team trey lead with 13 made already.

Stansbury tried to caution how Hood has much to develop defensively against comparable peers, as well as muscle-up. All of which applies to any rookie in the game, anywhere, so the coach is just looking for things to critique.

"But I had high expectations of him, he's probably reached those. There aren't many areas in his game he hasn't been pretty good."

Hood had more chances to show his stuff during the Moultrie/Sidney sitting stretch, which also threw the Bulldogs back on the old guard-heavy lineup and offensive style. Bost naturally came to the fore with a 17.0 scoring average and 19 treys. But senior guard Brian Bryant seized his own opportunities; lots of them. "He had to start at two, and there, and play some four," Stansbury noted.

Whatever the position Bryant showed more aggression on offense, while helping keep the overall tempo up in combination with Bost and Jalen Steele. "Presses won't be much problem for us," Stansbury said. Besides that the Bulldogs themselves have been able to guard and rebound with various combinations, meaning foul troubles should be less, well, trouble.

"So we've done it different ways," said Stansbury of being able to get plenty players involved through eight games already, and keep winning.

Stansbury updated a couple of non-playing situations as well. Freshman post Shawn Long remains on an excused absence, with an uncertain return timetable. "I don't know 100% yet, he has some personal issues I don't want to get into. We'll see where he is at mentally because he's struggling." Meanwhile guard Shaun Smith continues to struggle with the old hip situation, which has had more tests lately. Nothing new has shown up, but there are symptoms of arthritis in the joint now. Smith is day-to-day in his participation with practices depending on how much pain there is. "We're just trying to figure it out."

Having crammed so many games into the first few weeks of the season, this is an unusually easy stretch for the Bulldogs. After Saturday they are off for another entire week before hosting Troy on December 10. With a win this weekend, they can go into fall finals break with almost certainly a top-20 ranking, too.

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