Dogs Look For Right Re-Start To SEC Season

He could have taken a day off, what with the new school semester beginning and iffy weather and just the rare chance for an in-season break. But that wouldn't be Rodney Hood's style when he heard practice was scratched for staff illnesses. "I got in the gym, I don't know what everybody did. I worked on ball-handling and free throw shooting."

Basic stuff, in other words. The sort of things that, maybe more than his outstanding statistics, show why this is not your ordinary freshman. Of course they are also items Mississippi State is attending to this week as an entire team. A whole lot of items.

Such as defense on and off the ball. Individual handling and team movement. Screening and not getting screened. Getting the postmen in scoring positions. Or as Hood summarized, "More people have to start making plays."

And that's the story at Mississippi State this week as the #20-ranked Bulldogs try to shake off their SEC-opening stumble and prepare for a couple of home games. Key contests at that after a 98-88 loss at Arkansas put the Bulldogs at 13-3 overall but 0-1 in league play. Not that Coach Rick Stansbury wants to pile any extra pressures on his players just yet.

"It's a 15-game season now and you can't let one loss cause another loss," said Stansbury today. "That's a challenge always."

The revised season resumes Thursday evening as State hosts Tennessee (8-7, 1-0 SEC) in an 8:00 tilt. Because Monday's scheduled session was bagged with coaches and even strength staff feeling poorly, the Bulldogs didn't get a first scouting look at the Volunteers until this afternoon. Even so they know something already that has helped focus them, fast.

"I saw a little bit of the game against Florida," said PG Dee Bost. "It was a home game and they were hitting on all cylinders, they were attacking Florida and knocking down shots." And upsetting the then-#14 Gators, much the same way Arkansas spoiled then-#15 State's own SEC start. It wasn't a good Saturday for road teams in the league at all.

Or just a good way to begin a SEC schedule at all in the Bulldog case, after so much success in the 2011 portion. Stansbury saw the difference in his club afterwards, he admitted. "But that's part of your season and it's how you handle those losses."

"I don't expect them to be happy. I'm not happy. The way you handle it is you work harder to get out of it. And our guys have been pretty good about that."

By the same token up to Saturday, the squad had been pretty good—even great at times—playing defense. What startled State more than anything was giving up 98 points, when only once before had they allowed as much as 70 (75 at Detroit) and that in a win anyway. Yes, the Razorbacks were hot on the shot…and it was no excuse.

"That's unacceptable," said Hood. "I mean, they're a good team, not to take anything away from them, but 98 is too much."

Instead of getting in the practice gym and working on scoring more themselves, though, Hood and some teammates are taking an approach their coach approves. These Dogs take pride in defense and intend on setting such a tone again when Tennessee comes to town. "I guess we'll have a defensive practice today," G Brian Bryant said.

"We all know we have to get better defensively if we want to be as good as we can be," said PF Arnett Moultrie. "Especially on-the-ball defense."

Having dealt with such situations way too often before, Stansbury is the least worried about Arkansas after-effects. "I'm not going to panic," he said, before an interesting additional thought about how his team could give up so many points. "Offense led to some defensive problems, too. We've only given up 70 points one other time, so defensively we've been pretty consistent."

That seems a curious comment since State shot almost 52% and made 45% at the arc. But Stansbury was looking at issues which kept the Dogs from being even more efficient. Ball-handling was the first obvious factor with 18 official turnovers and many more miss-played opportunities. Even when on-ball pressure didn't create an outright turnover, it often forced Moultrie to leave the paint as the big guy to take a pass and break the press. Moultrie did this just fine, but in the process was nowhere near the basket for the sorts of first- and second-option entry passes he has been turning into double-digit points this season.

"It was extremely frustrating, especially when coach said the plays we were running were to get me the ball in the post," Moultrie said. He got only six shots off for nine points, and Moultrie himself noted how he went five, six minutes in a stretch on the court without touching the ball on offense at all. "But I'm not complaining about it," he added.

No, but it was a non-verbal complaint that produced a technical exemplifying his frustrations. "I don't think I deserved that tech, but they said it was a couple of gestures I made (on a foul call)." Moultrie has also picked up on suggestions he and C Renardo Sidney are receiving extra attention from officials. "That's what they're saying, so I guess I have to calm down."

Most nights that hasn't been a problem for the level-headed junior. For that matter thoughts that the Memphis native will be especially stoked to play his home-state university seem unlikely. After a couple of years at UTEP, then sitting a transfer season here at State, Moultrie admits he knows no Vols personally. Not even mid-year enrollee and star forward prospect Jarnell Stokes, also a Memphis product. "He's younger than me, I heard about him."

In the first SEC outing Stansbury tried a new trick in how to play Sidney, not starting his junior center in a stated attempt to avoid fast foul troubles. And, the aggravations that come with the whistles. It didn't increase Sidney's total minutes but did give the coach more flexibility with when his big guy does play. Will it be the same tactic Thursday?

"We'll see," Stansbury said. "Sometimes you just have to go ahead and make a decision. There's been a tendency to pick up two quick fouls and we didn't as quick the last game. We've talked about it a lot, try to get to that first timeout without picking up any fouls. Especially two fouls."

But based on today's talk, there will still be plenty chances for Moultrie, Sidney, et.al. to draw fouls. Because the offense is going back to the paint, regardless. "Arnett is one of our strengths and we didn't get the ball to him," Hood said. "I think coach is going to put some plays in against pressure to get him the ball."

Sidney, too, adds Stansbury. The trick is that Tennessee brings an even taller team to the court than Arkansas, with 6-7 guards and a frontcourt of 265 and 215 pounds. The Vols got off to a rough start under their new coaching staff, losing six of seven in one stretch and then taking a 69-51 thumping from Memphis a week ago. But the 67-56 upset of Florida reminded that this is not a bunch to take for granted.

"Any time you do what they did to Florida you've got a good team," Stansbury said. "They've got some size, some guys that can shoot the ball, and got some veterans. They've got some balance on the team, a lot of guys who can do a lot of things."

But so does State, probably even more guys who can do better things. It's a matter of fixing some of the weak points just exposed in the last three contests, such as on-ball defending and keeping offensive cohesion. Sure, the Dogs scored 88 at Arkansas but a lot of it, probably too much, came in helter-skelter style that was fun to watch; and certainly fun for freshman guard Deville Smith to play as he put up 25 in end-to-end action. That just isn't what this team is best-built for, and Bost said it can be used as a painful but productive lesson.

"We can always get better. The good thing about losing is you've got another game. It ain't the end of the year, it's the beginning," said a senior who knows about the long haul of a whole season. Then again, every winning streak needs a beginning, and defending the home court this week is the best place to start. Or start over.

"We have to take a different attitude," Bost said. "Tennessee is coming in off a big win, and we have to hit them in the mouth early."


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