Stansbury Refocuses Squad For Home Openers

The blot on the record can't be removed, but the experience can certainly be applied. So Rick Stansbury will use some hard lessons that 98-88 setback at Arkansas in preparing his Bulldogs for the first full week of SEC season.

The first home week, too. Or home weekend rather as Mississippi State hosts a pair of conference games in less than 72 hours. Tennessee comes to town Thursday evening for a 8:00 matchup (ESPN2); then it is a fast turnaround for Saturday's 3:00 visit by Alabama (SEC Network).

Just don't say ‘fast' too loudly around the basketball office today. Stansbury is still smarting from how Arkansas altered Mississippi State's pace on SEC-opening night and upset the 15th-ranked Bulldogs. That said, the calendar keeps moving and the Bulldogs (13-3, 0-1 SEC) have no time to mope.

"We came off a tough game Saturday night," said Stansbury today. "We have a very good team coming in, that is playing very well and coming off a great win for them." Another unexpected league outcome too, as the Volunteers knocked off #14-ranked Florida in the day's other top-twenty upset. While not good for the SEC's image, or RPI, those opening results did make a stronger statement about the conference's home courts.

Not that Stansbury finds solace in a road loss, much less what he saw in review. "We weren't very good, we have to get better," he said, simply but accurately.

And, somewhat surprisingly because as the ranking and 13 pre-league victories showed the Bulldogs have been good and often very good this season so far. Even the end of an 11-win streak to #6 Baylor ought not have derailed anything because it was fought down to the wire and on a hostile court. Yet Stansbury saw some hangover from that December 28 trip in a closer-than-necessary win over Utah State to end pre-SEC action.

Still it was hard to accept how his squad played after a whole week-off to refocus on conference season, road game notwithstanding.

"They (Arkansas) hit us in the mouth early and I don't know that we ever recovered," Stansbury said this morning. "They played great, they did different things I hadn't seen them do, and I thought we never recovered." In fact, the coach did not think State could have played much more poorly than it did in the Fayetteville first half, only to watch the Razorbacks run away early in the second.

Tennessee will have gone through that game in detail, too, for clues how to come at the Bulldogs. Stansbury expects some similarities; "They're going to play man-to-man, they're going to be aggressive. They really get into you and guard you half-court." Which Arkansas did, though with the added emphasis on picking up full-court and staying right on the ball. The result, Stansbury said, was "They sped us up and we didn't make good decisions always." Tennessee probably cannot duplicate that, at least not with the same style.

But whatever the Volunteers try, or don't, it is up to State players to play their own game all over the court. Stansbury's frustrations began with how the backcourt handled pressure on point guard Dee Bost. "They double-teamed Dee and made other guys make decisions sometimes. I don't think Jalen Steele and Brian Bryant made a lot of other things happen."

Correct. Senior Bryant took one shot (he made it) in all 19 minutes, with an assist and two turnovers. Steele's tried more in 24 minutes, going 2-of-6 shooting with no assists and one giveaway. If not for a splendid off-bench game by Deville Smith it would have been a blowout; the freshman exploded off the bench for 25 points, including a trio of treys, and drew enough fouls to make ten free throws.

Outstanding, but not the sort of substitute performance a coach wants to count on. Besides, Stansbury said, it is up to old hand Bost to set a tone here. He tried at Arkansas and scored 21 points. But by his own admission Bost hasn't been sharp for weeks; in the last five games he has shot 18-of-65 overall and just 5-of-27 at the arc.

So State needs the old, more familiar Bost back running the show. It might be worth noting that he's averaged 12.3 points with 26 assists in four career games against Tennessee teams.

At the same time Stansbury is not nearly so concerned with his senior guard shaking out of any slump as he is getting the entire offense back on track. As in, working the ball into the post where Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney can establish themselves and control a game. Leading scorer Moultrie had a long evening at Arkansas; or rather a short one with 29 minutes before fouling out with a technical included.

Whatever his frustrations with how the game was played, what hurt Moultrie more was taking a season-low six shots and only one free throw. He still made double-digits on the boards with ten rebounds but in no sense was the inside factor Moultrie should have been against an obviously overmatched Arkansas frontcourt. Stansbury said this too was a reflection of guards getting caught up in the game's accelerated pace and not playing State's way.

A lesson learned, presumably? "We've got to get him the ball, and for the most part we've been consistent with that," said Stansbury. "We've got to get him the ball more, that's for sure." Ironically one aspect of his gameplan worked Saturday. Stansbury chose not to start Sidney for a sound basketball reason.

"He's been having some foul trouble early, he'd been picking up two fouls early in those games. So it was my decision not to start him." Sidney finished his 22 minutes with just three fouls and in the game. But, he also had just four shots, six points—all on a pair of treys—and only four rebounds. Whether or not Stansbury starts the big center, the real goal is to make the minutes much more productive. And thus free room for Moultrie to be the same double-double force as in most games so far.

Something the coach is also addressing is the potential for opposing attitudes coming into Thursday. Naturally Tennessee is feeling better at the moment. "Emotionally they're going to be at their best, so it will be a difficult challenge for us," Stansbury said. At the same time the Bulldogs just need some settling-down after a few frustrating turns, or perhaps a reality check right here at the start of what can still be a championship season.

In fact State ought to be at full motivation come Saturday despite the short turnaround. The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide are still expected to battle all season for top spot on this side of the conference, as well as superior post-season seeding. Besides, there is the natural rivalry of the neighboring programs and recent series swings. After State took five-straight from 2007-09, Alabama has won four of the last five meetings including a sweep of the 2011 set.

With the spring semester beginning Monday, the Bulldogs get into their routine practice and media schedule this week.

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