Stansbury Says Bulldogs' Best Is Still Ahead

The record, the ranking, just everything about the team should signal that Mississippi State is peaking in time for SEC season. Not so, says Rick Stansbury. And he couldn't be more pleased to say so. "I think there's a lot of room for improvement on this team."

That is not what upcoming opponents want to hear as Mississippi State opens conference season this Saturday evening at Arkansas. Game time is 8:00 for CSS telecast, and no doubt the network will trumpet the #15 Bulldog ranking. And the 13-2 record that has earned such rating. And that Stansbury has a full-strength roster available for league play again.

As promising a situation as his team has right now, though, the Bulldog coach sees even greater potential.

"Maybe some other teams this time of year wouldn't have that level of improvement left, you'd have guys already playing with effort and execution. That's why I think this team has a lot of room for improvement."

Which would imply the proverbial sky is Mississippi State's limit. Because in the pre-conference season Stansbury rarely questioned his team's effort, and not all that often even their execution. The Bulldogs were sufficiently good at both to go on a 11-game win streak including victories over Texas A&M, Arizona, and West Virginia. Even the two losses were no shame, though had State executed on defense just a bit better at the end of a 54-52 outcome at #6 Baylor this team would likely carry a top-ten ranking into January.

That nailbiter setback hasn't thrown State off any stride, though, meaning plenty of momentum to take to Fayetteville for the first of 16 conference contests. Even their cautious coach believes his Bulldogs are prepared for a debut away from home, thanks to the rigorous fall semester schedule.

"That's why we played a lot of those these games, different people and different styles, to get ready to go on the road," Stansbury said.

Opening at Arkansas might not be his ideal scheduling, at least not historically. Yet the times have been changing in this rivalry for most of a decade now. Bulldog teams have won six of the last seven meetings since 2008, and 12 of the last 18 including four victories at Walton Arena. Though Stansbury still respects the venue, "What makes places difficult is the teams you play against. Crowds are a factor but it's the team you play against."

This Razorback team is 11-3, with respectable losses to Houston, Connecticut, and Oklahoma; none unexpected given the inherited situation. Then again the wins are not impressive with just two victims currently better than .500. New coach Mike Anderson has scheduled carefully for his thin first roster.

Which got thinner almost immediately as forward Marshawn Powell tore knee ligaments just two games into the season. Losing their best, certainly best-known, player and top scoring threat leaves Anderson relying on a group both younger and smaller than he'd hoped. He has adapted as best possible though to use what is available, and Stansbury has been preparing accordingingly.

"They're better in a lot of ways than they've been, they've got a lot of different players," he said. "They've got a lot of different weapons." Including a few new ones, with a pair of freshmen starting the most recent game. 250-pound DeVonta Abron has taken over in the post with a 6.5 point, 5.1 rebound rate; and new guard B.J. Young is setting the scoring pace at 14.1 points with 23 treys already. Young has only started twice, though.

That was in place of soph and Jackson native Julysses Nobles, who started the first 13 games but has been in a terrible shooting slump both overall and at the arc. But the Callaway High product is one of the few available Razorbacks with experience against State squads and will find his way onto the court, along with fellow soph guards Mardracus Wade and Rickey Scott.

Stansbury said the loss of big man Powell naturally hurts Arkansas' paint potential. "But taking him out, they play a skill guy more at different times. The way they play they can go on rolls, they can put four guards together and sometimes have three point guards together."

Which certainly speeds up the Arkansas offense and can at times offset the lack of sheer strength inside. It also has State focusing this week on something Stansbury has not been satisfied with, the on-ball defense as well as shedding screens. So, "Your point guard has to control things," he said. "There's going to be some transition baskets but you can't let the game take over."

Fortunately the Bulldog backcourt ought to be up to this challenge. With Dee Bost, Brian Bryant, and Deville Smith there are guards to stay on the ball, and Stansbury is comfortable with some of his forwards picking up as well. These Dogs will likely also find themselves busy when the ball is going the other way, too. Because Arkansas may be generations removed from the ‘forty minutes' full court pressure, but under Anderson they will come after the ball.

Especially when using the guard-dominated lineup, Stansbury said. "They're going to do what they do, they get after you. They want to press you like they've always done and get after you in half-court." Though, he added, there is more of a 50/50 split lately between man and zone defense by the Razorbacks, who drop into 1-3-1 sets to make up for lack of big men.

Either way, guard Jalen Steele and small forward Rodney Hood also expect to dribble in traffic. "But we've got multiple handlers, we're not limited like we were last year," Stansbury said. "We're more equipped to handle full-court pressure than we were last year, for sure. We have other guys we feel comfortable bringing the ball up."

Of course Hood has proven as competent dribbling as all else the freshman has tried. "I had high expectations for him, I think he's probably exceeded them," Stansbury said. Especially the rookie's 33.5 minutes per game, during which he averages 12.3 points and 5.4 rebounds.

But the big-numbers on this squad belong to the bigger forward, as Arnett Moultrie goes into SEC season on a double-digit roll. In fact he has posted D-Ds in eight games and his overall 16.8 points and 11.4 boards has brought NBA scouts to his games in increasing numbers. Moultrie is also over-due for a SEC Player of the Week honor, though at this pace State will call it even if the junior makes league Player of the Year.

Speaking of honors, senior Bost (15.9 points, 66 assists and 33 treys) has made the latest cut for the Cousy Award and is one of twenty finalists. "I haven't look at the list," Stansbury said, "but I know he's an awful good point guard. I don't know if any of them do as much for a team as Dee does." Though, Bost has been in a scoring slump lately and it might have impacted a few other areas. "He hasn't been as consistent offensively the last couple of games as he needed to," said Stansbury.

Which is one reason why the coach thinks the best of this Bulldog bunch is still to come. Another is that they tip off league play with everyone both healthy and available, with no suspensions or sideline dramas of any sort. "I look back, there's been five, six, seven games we haven't had our whole team, and we had to play so many different lineups," Stansbury said.

"What's good about us is we have different guys that do it different nights. We've been able to do it against different people in different ways. The longer we can play together, the more consistency we can get in what we're trying to do."

After opening their conference campaign Saturday night, the Bulldogs return home for a three-day/two-game home stand next weekend. State hosts Tennessee at 8:00 Thursday evening, then turns around for a 3:00 Saturday set with Alabama.

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