A Dog December Date With March Implications

They have been tested by quality competition on a major national stage, not to mention a neutral court. And they came out of a first real road game with another confidence-building victory. Now, Mississippi State really steps it up for a December matchup with a March air about it. "This will no question be our most difficult challenge of the year, playing Baylor," Coach Rick Stansbury said.

Challenge, true. But Wednesday's meeting of Mississippi State and Baylor in Dallas is loaded with opportunity, too. Not to mention interest from all around the college roundball world as it features a pair of top-twenty clubs from major conferences, on a neutral court at that. Call it a potential preview of what the 2012 NCAA Tournament could feature in later rounds.

The Bulldogs (12-1) arrive at American Airlines Center ranked #15 in the final polls for 2011. They face undefeated and #6-ranked Baylor (12-0) with a scheduled 8:00 tipoff for ESPN2. That time is a bit flexible as it is the second game of the day in The Showcase. The one-day, two-game event begins at 5:30 with Oklahoma State playing Southern Methodist on ESPNU.

This may well be the greatest challenge so far for Mississippi State, but in another sense it is just the latest one. Stansbury's squad has performed already on a major stage and with excellent reviews. Back in mid-November the Bulldogs strode into the spotlight at Madison Square Garden and knocked off both Texas A&M and Arizona by a combined 19 points. They followed those successes by beating West Virginia on the home court, before grinding out a five-point victory at Detroit.

Those four wins were just the most notable among State's ongoing 11-game winning streak which has pushed the Dogs into the top-fifteen. The latest W on the ledger came with a 82-67 thumping of Northwestern (La.) State last week in Jackson, prior to Stansbury excusing everyone for a quick Christmas holiday. They returned to campus Monday and were heading to Dallas today for a date that has been circled ever since State's schedule was finalized.

The preceding weeks have only magnified the meeting. The last time State played a non-conference opponent ranked this high was in the 2008 NCAA regional, losing to #2 Memphis in Little Rock. Though, a year later the '09 Bulldogs were playing another #2 team as they lost to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament finals. It is still State's highest-ranked matchup in a regular season, out of conference, since taking on Syracuse in 2004

So Stansbury knows a top-notch opponent when he sees one, and these Bears fit that bill.

"It's obvious we're going to play one of the best teams in the country in Baylor," Stansbury said. "Scott (Drew) has done a terrific job with them, and they're playing at a very high level. They play a lot of different ways and have a lot of different weapons."

Such as four double-digit scorers, just like Mississippi State. The Bears have been a ‘big' team this fall semester season starting three frontcourt types centered, so to speak, around 6-11 Perry Jones III with his 14.1 point and 6.9 rebound averages. But alongside the 235-pounder, Baylor will line up 6-7, 225-pound forward Quincy Acy with his 12.9 point , 7.4 rebound resume. And there's more bulk available too with 6-10 freshman Quincy Miller providing 10.8 points and five boards.

However, Stansbury sees more than size on the other squad. A lot more.

"They score a lot of different ways. It seems as their season goes on their guards have really stepped up and played different roles for them." Such as soph Brady Heslip, who nearly doubled his 10.8 season average when he hit for 19 in a 83-81 overtime win over West Virginia in the Las Vegas Classic finals. Heslip leads the Big XII in treys-per-game, yet he wasn't even the top gunner that day. Guard Pierre Jackson provided 23 points off the bench with four three-point goals. He averages a dozen per-game as a substitute.

Jackson, out of College of Southern Idaho, is also one of two transfers playing a big Bear role. Guard Gary Franklin was activated four games ago and has added to the perimeter scoring. "He just gives them a different guy on the floor," said Stansbury.

"They're really potent offensively and have a tendency to play that (guard oriented) way more than play big lately. But there's no one thing you can take away from them. They have weapons inside and outside and can score in transition. They don't have any weaknesses."

Outside shooters notwithstanding, the strongest point is Cousey Award nominee Jones. In fact the top sub-plot in Dallas is the matching up of the Bear big man with the double-digit Dog Arnett Moultrie. At least media and fans are thinking that way; the MSU coach is more cautious.

"I don't know if anybody is a good matchup against Jones. He's a different player and scores a lot of different ways. He has great athleticism and is a difficult challenge. But I guess if you want a guy who has a chance to match up and guard him in the perimeter and on the block some, that's Arnett."

True…but the flip-side is how Jones or anybody else will cope with Moultrie. A transfer himself, the former UTEP forward is having a monster pre-SEC season with State. Moultrie is averaging a team-best 17.8 points and league-best 11.4 rebounds, and just notched his seventh double-double of the season with 24 points and 14 rebounds against Northwestern State. There can't be many more efficient big men in the land now than Moultrie with his 58% shooting and 88% free throwing.

Nor is there any question the big forward has had a big hand, at times, from Renardo Sidney (10.2 points). The starting center had his Thursday evening appearance in the home town cut short by a first-half kneecap tendon problem. Stansbury wasn't giving much of hint Monday discussing Sidney's status, wanting to see how he handled Monday and Tuesday practices. The official ‘day to day' condition only means that if the 6-10 post can go at all, he will this game.

Though, a career-best 14 points by Wendell Lewis that night signaled what the junior can do if he exerts himself. So State isn't concerned about who starts on the frontcourt tomorrow; it is getting the job done with just three proven players in the paint.

The backcourt fortunately is at full-strength, quarterbacked by senior and Cousey nominee Dee Bost (17.2 ppg, 31 treys). Bost is now the second Bulldog ever to issue 500 career assists, and needs just seven more to tie the all-time mark of 514 set by Derrick Zimmerman. As for the second starting guard, Stansbury has made clear he isn't as concerned with who takes tipoff as who finishes out the win.

So soph Jalen Steele is tentatively booked to start but it won't take long for Brian Bryant to take the court. Having served his four-game suspension, the senior has picked up making the sorts of plays before sitting. This also allows Stansbury to apportion minutes carefully to talented but still-learning rookie guard Deville Smith, who can make an explosive play one trip and a glaring gaffe the next. At equal speed, though.

One frosh not under court-time quota is forward Rodney Hood, already handling the 3rd-most minutes of any player, any position, in the SEC. His 12.4 points and 5.2 rebounds don't adequately reflect the eye-opening impact Hood has had in his first 13 college games, making him an early favorite for SEC freshman of the year.

Of course Hood was only nine years old the last time—make that the only other time--Mississippi State played American Airlines Center. That was in the 2002 NCAA regionals, when a Bulldog team fresh off their upset run to the SEC tournament title was sited in Dallas. They took care of McNeese State in round-one, then fell far behind Texas on Sunday before a memorable rally and painful loss.

"It's been a long time," Stansbury said. "I remember we fought back and we had a shot to tie it up late. I remember it was a beautiful arena, one of the better in the country." One that current Dogs have seen watching NBA games, too. As for the last Bulldog-Bear meeting, that even pre-dates Stansbury. The 1990 squad hosted and defeated Baylor in the NIT.

Many player-generations later the programs meet again, with both obviously on courses that will take them far above NIT consideration. Everything about the matchup signals an advance-look at a couple of NCAA contenders…much as was the case when State played the Garden last month. "We were pretty good up there in New York," Stansbury said.

Another such neutral-court success in Dallas will be even better. Local fans can still get tickets for the Showcase, with prices ranging from $29 to $99 on Tickemaster.

Mississippi State has one final pre-conference contest on the 2011 calendar, hosting Utah State on New Years Eve. Tipoff has been moved back an hour to 2:00, and discounted tickets are available at the door for $5.

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