Coach Rick Stansbury welcomes a return to the home court where his team is 2-0 in conference play. For that matter the nailbiting Saturday success in Nashville, State's first win away from home, did wonders for club confidence in regard to upcoming contests. The coach just wants proper perspective.
"Any time you can win one on the road its special," Stansbury said today. "But like all games, it counts as one win. Get ready for the next one."
A next-one that in the past might have set up as a classic trap-type game. Certainly these Dogs and cats have put on some scratch-and-claw shows recently, with one-point Bulldog wins in 2010 and '11 and a two-point Tiger upset in the Hump the last time around. If Wednesday's war is waged the same way, though, it won't be for lack of home-team focus.
Not after what they had to do to score a key conference conquest at Vanderbilt. Such as over-work for overtime in a lot of cases, as State stormed back from a eleven-point halftime deficit and came out ahead at the extended end.
"Now we just have to go out and put together a whole game of 40 minutes what you saw in the second half," said forward Arnett Moultrie. Who, for the record, played an official 45 minutes in the win. "Hey, we rested him!" reminded Stansbury, noting the 15 clock-seconds or so Moultrie was sidelined around a TV timeout. Moultrie wasn't buying it, not after the nearly-full-game caught up with him on the flight back.
"My hamstring started cramping up, that's probably as long as I've ever played."
And every bit of it was needed as State ‘stole' one on the SEC road that ought to make up for last Wednesday's 75-68 setback at Ole Miss. How those balance-out won't be known until March tournament seedings and sitings but there is much the Bulldogs can take from both results. Players, naturally, look at the good, such as how this team responded successfully.
Senior guard Dee Bost certainly saw a difference to this stress-test than how previous State squads coped under pressure. "We tried last year but I don't think we had the pieces to do that. This year I think we have a lot of people that are coachable and do what we need to to win."
Stansbury hopes everyone accepts coaching for the next challenge, because these Tigers are more dangerous than the record shows. True, their league wins have been at home and over Ole Miss and Auburn, opponents on the same back-marker track. The MSU coach sees something different after scouting other games, such as a win at Marquette, a close home loss to Virginia, and a 76-64 final at Florida in the most recent outing which Stansbury calls deceptive.
"They're as talented as anybody," he said. "They've got great post depth. (Justin) Hamilton is as good as any low-post player in this league, he can shoot that 15-to-18 foot shot, he can put it down a few dribbles. Sliding (Storm) Warren over there gives them a big power forward. You know how good (Malcolm) White is athletically.
"They've got great depth, they're going to play ten guys. And you have two seniors coming off the bench in (Chris) Bass and White. And I think they really defend well. Hamilton has really helped them, he's a load for everybody who plays against them because he's so versatile."
There isn't quite as much depth as before. Rookie guard Johnny O'Bryant is being evaluated for a broken left hand with status unstated so far.
The Bulldog backcourt will be shorthanded as well this week. Freshman guard Deville Smith was back in Jackson today, Stansbury confirmed, being evaluated for the same symptoms shown last fall. No clear problem was found then and Smith's situation is still unclear. "I really don't know any more," Stansbury said today.
"I don't know all the details about the hospital but he's resting some at that hospital. He will not be available right now for sure." As in either this midweek game or the Saturday trip to Florida. Smith played seven minutes at Ole Miss but not at Vanderbilt, leaving a thin backcourt for any sort of SEC game. Much less overtime.
Stansbury is planning accordingly for the absence, such as getting soph Shaun Smith—who last played on December 13—a single minute at Vanderbilt. "We probably need to see if Shaun can give us five or six minutes here and there," Stansbury said. Minutes carefully chosen though as it is tough taking Bost off the floor for long. He put in 43 the other night and…
"Yeah, I was tired," Bost said. "I'm still tired." A good tired though after throwing in 24 points. Or more to the point, shooting his way out of a eight-game slump. In that stretch he made 29.8% of all shots, and 28% of three-point tries. At Vanderbilt the rims and range were more to his liking as Bost hit 8-of-14 and 3-of-6. Bost agreed, the slump was in the back of the mind.
"But I was going to come out sooner or later and I felt that was the right time to come out. Hopefully it carries over to the next game." The same can be said for guard Jalen Steele's outside accuracy, as after a short slump of his own the sophomore burned Commodore coverage with 5-of-8 from the arc and four-straight makes in the crucial second-half stretch.
"It helped us out a lot, we need as much scoring as we can get and when he came off the bench he gave us that," said Bost.
While Steele, whether starter or subbing, might dribble a time or two the ball-handling is best left to Bost and Brian Bryant. Stansbury is already thinking ahead here. "We may start Dee at the one and Dee at the two, and at times tell Bryant run one and slide Dee over just to rest him." But not sit him, not after Bost looked like…well, like his old self again, and not just scoring the ball. "Dee had his best floor game of the year. He played fast but under control," Stansbury said. "We did it a lot of different ways and with a lot of different people but Dee was instrumental in controlling that game."
So, in his own way, did center Renardo Sidney. The stat line didn't stand out with nine points and a single rebound. And shot selection could still rile his coach at the wrong times. Yet it was Sidney's hard effort to open the second half with power layups, a momentum-turning block of Vandy center Festus Ezelli, and a clutch trey late in regulation that was remembered.
"That's what we want from him," Bost said. "We don't mind if he shoots the ball, we want him to attack and be aggressive because we don't feel anybody can stop him in the post." Sidney even turned a problem, his two fast first-half fouls, into a positive, per Bost. "He rested for the whole first half, and then he shut them down."
Which is not the same as shutting everyone up with critiques of occasional lack of effort and defensive lapses. Teammates accept it all as part of this squad's still-developing chemistry. Besides, Moultrie said, "That's something he always talks about, and we tell him just prove them wrong by his play."
Hood saw something new from the big Dog, not just how he went after Ezelli's open look—"the old Sid would have let him dunk it, he went after it"—but other defensive efforts. "Just defensively he's being a presence, he helped all night hedging on screens. I think it motivates him every game, people talking, but every single game he produces one way or another." "There's not much more criticism can be thrown at him than has been thrown at him in the past," Stansbury said. Sidney went down awkwardly delivering a slick bounce-pass to Bost for a layup with what looked like a foot problem. "I just found out, it was a knee," Stansbury reported. Sidney will be watched at today's practice but expects to play against the Tigers.
And, play as he did that last half and in overtime. So do the rest of a Bulldog team that has put last week's slap to the face in Oxford behind them. Or, has learned other and equally important lessons from an excellent comeback at Vanderbilt. As Hood noted, State came out swinging at each end of the floor and got the job done. Which means…?
"We could play with anybody," Hood said. "We went into their place and beat them and that that gives us confidence."