State Returns To Jackson For Thursday Show

Their Christmas break is so temptingly close now, and naturally the Bulldogs have their plans made. Maybe even some bags packed. "But until we go home we've got another job to do," Rick Stansbury said. "And that's Northwestern."

That's correct. Mississippi State does indeed have one remaining game, and task, on their to-do list before Christmas. And it isn't shopping. The 18th-ranked Bulldogs meet Northwestern Louisiana in a Thursday evening matchup at their ‘other' home court in Jackson. Game time in the Mississippi Coliseum is 7:00, and ticket demand shows State fans have invested some of their own shopping cash in this game.

Coliseum officials report the strongest advance sales in a decade for this event. The first part, this Wednesday evening, is free. The Bulldogs will have an open shootaround from 5:30 to 6:00 with fans invited to stick around for autographs and photos until State has to clear the court for Northwestern's 7:00 practice.

This is the tenth season Stansbury has taken a team to Jackson for a mid-semester game, though only eight of the previous contests count on his 8-0 record. That includes Stansbury's first game as head coach, back in November 1998. Last year's event was an exhibition with Belhaven. All-time State teams are 14-4 playing in the capitol city's venue.

And if the coach has his way this will remain an annual holidays event.

"I said a long time ago, I think it's a great opportunity for people to see our team who don't have a chance in the season," Stansbury said. "Going down (the day) before has been good for us, it gives people a chance to get in touch with our players. And through the years there's been a lot of kids who have seen us play that it might have influenced."

Meanwhile this current generation of Bulldogs is having its own influence. They take a ten-win streak to Jackson, the latest success in their first true ‘road' game with a 80-75 success at Detroit. State also retains a top-twenty ranking though they actually slipped a notch after last Saturday's win. Fortunately, the Bulldog coach thinks his players have put as much stock in exactly where they are listed as they have being ranked at all lately.

Besides, "I tell them what do these guys know about basketball?" Stansbury joked, sort of. "So how much does that mean?!"

Not much, maybe…but winning, now, that means something. Just ask Dee Bost. The senior guard has been through this mid-season drill before, just never on the sort of hot streak the Bulldogs are enjoying.

"I knew we were going to be good," Bost said. "I wouldn't say I knew we would be this good. But I'd say we have a long way to go."

Not to SEC season, though. Mississippi State has this and two other games left on the pre-conference slate. And this time of year even a ranking and win streak might not suffice to keep everyone entirely focused as some holiday home-time looms.

"It's tough keeping guys' minds focused where you're going, what you've got to do, before your Christmas break," Stansbury said. "For the most part our guys have been good." As in, attending to three days of practices before heading to Jackson. In the larger picture even the Bulldogs have been very good at taking care of their own business without outside interruption.

Or for that matter internal disruptions. Stansbury has been forced to assemble a variety of lineups during the streak for several sorts of reasons, most notably the sidelined stints of forward Arnett Moultrie and guard Brian Bryant; both starters. Yet each re-shuffle has still produced a winning hand. Or lineup.

Now with everyone in the clear, "These games are important for us, to get our chemistry back," Moultrie said. "We haven't lost it but we need to build it back."

Stansbury agrees, looking briefly past Thursday to the two key contests between Christmas and New Years. "We've got two big games coming up, and it's important to get some rhythm back with those guys." Then again State was able to insert each into action at Detroit, after both had missed the previous two games, and strike a tune quickly enough. Especially while running out to 15-point leads in the second half.

Things got much more tense towards the end as Detroit managed a late tie. But freshman forward Rodney Hood stuck the go-ahead jumper and Moultrie literally rose to the defensive occasion by blocking the Titans' tying attempt. It would have been easier not letting the lead evaporate, Stansbury agreed. But maybe making it close at the end and winning will pay off come SEC season, perhaps?

"Our guys kept their composure and found a way to make the plays they had to make," Stansbury said.

The layoff didn't seem to knock Moultrie off-song at all, with his sixth double-double of the season and 6-of-9 shooting. The league's leading rebounder had 13 more boards to his tally and now averages 11.4, with 17.1 points. Perhaps his most remarkable number, even more than 87% free throwing, is how in nine games Moultrie has just 18 fouls despite playing solid defense.

Bryant's return from a four game suspension wasn't too shabby either. He matched Moultrie with 17 points, also equaling his season high, with six rebounds as well. This was in 30 minutes played off the bench. Bryant started seven times before suspension and certainly performed like a starter. This doesn't mean he will earn automatic promotion, though.

"We'll stay with the way we're playing," Stansbury said. Which means Jalen Steele (7.5 points, 18 three-pointers) would stay starting off-guard. It's a job he filled very well the previous three starts with 37 points and 8-of-14 accuracy at the arc. Then at Detroit he slumped to three points in 24 minutes. This isn't forcing the coach to make any moves just yet, though.

"I don't worry about starting lineups. I put no stock in that," said Stansbury. "Brian, I have to look and see but I'd say played more minutes off the bench than starting. Jalen has been starting and I'm comfortable with how that's been. We'll stay with that." Besides, he added, "It ain't who starts, it's who finishes."

Most recently that would have been Bost and Bryant out front with small forward Hood, Moultrie at big forward and center Renardo Sidney. The junior post benefitted from Moultrie's bench time for 18 and 10 points in the last two home games, but even with everyone present Sidney still muscled for 16 points and seven boards Saturday. He's become quite the complementary force with Moultrie, allowing the other to set a tone but also taking what is available on offense.

"I think he's been a little bit better," Stansbury said. Sidney is still capped at around 20-22 minutes of action, limiting some opportunities. "But again I'll take less minutes if its more productive." Besides, Wendell Lewis is not a drop-off when subbed-in at center for Sidney.

Tomorrow is something of a homecoming for Sidney, who first gained hardcourt attention playing around Jackson before a junior high move to California. Freshman guard Deville Smith is another local product coming back to the home town for an evening; and for that matter Meridian native Hood will have a sizable cheering section as well. Stansbury just hopes this is no distraction for those players; or that the entire team isn't caught looking ahead to a short break.

Or for that matter that State unwinds too much this weekend. The Bulldogs will barely have unwrapped their presents before reporting back to campus, and prepping for their trip to Dallas and a December 28th date with Baylor in American Airlines Arena. That top-twenty showdown, followed by a New Years Eve home game with Utah State, are critical to setting up State's charge into SEC season.

Stansbury confirmed today that freshman center Shaun Long is leaving the program, having never played a game this fall semester. "He's going back home, I don't know where yet." Long is a Morgan City, La., native. He departs still eligible having passed fall semester classes.

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