Certainly Coach Rick Stansbury will point to all areas needing improvement when the Bulldogs (18-5, 5-3 SEC) grind through review of the 75-68 upset loss. And upsetting it was as then-#15 State had a five-win streak over their rivals snapped. In fact for veteran Dogs it was their first ever loss on the hostile court, something which stung their pride badly.
Stansbury will use painful memory to motivate for this rematch. More technically, "We didn't play our best game, and they played awful well," the coach said.
The Rebels indeed did play a good game at home, making half their shots and hitting the boards harder while just generally handling every challenge State threw their way. Lesson learned, said Steele.
"We have to go out with the mindset that Ole Miss is not a bad team, that they're very good," the guard said, adding, "We can't take any team for granted."
That is a fact of Bulldog life this season. Though, the current club has not been burned with the sort of ‘bad' loss that was a trademark of recent teams. While State has been pushed harder by lesser foes than ought to have been, such as nailbiters with Tennessee, LSU, and Auburn, they've come out ahead all the same. Those were home court wins of course, but the Dogs also own an impressive overtime victory at Vanderbilt.
So it is a team confident about playing everything down to the wire, guard Dee Bost agreed. All the same he would rather dominate start-to-finish and not risk a real resume-damaging upset. "We have to get our competitive edge back," Bost said. "And take it personal, go out and compete."
Ole Miss (14-8, 4-4 SEC) has been plenty competitive in conference play, but this has also brought lots of frustration. Since getting rolled at LSU to start SEC season the Rebels have played everyone to single-digit decisions with tense wins over Arkansas, State, Georgia, and South Carolina. Their losses were even tighter, by four points to Florida—after letting a double-digit lead vanish—and in overtimes at both Auburn and Alabama.
Those three huge missed chances loom large here at the half-way point of SEC play. Had Ole Miss finished out any of them they would be even with State in the league standings. Still they are right on Bulldog heels trying to break into the upper-third of the conference and attract post-season attention. And, doing so after dismissing their leading scorer and top guard.
Since then Coach Andy Kennedy's club has adapted around a versatile combination of agile frontcourt forwards and hard-nosed guards. Stansbury is impressed how 6-4 guard Nick Williams has risen to the opportunity to average ten points per game and offer an outside threat. "He can shoot the ball, that's his role," Stansbury said. "Since they lost (Dundrecous) Nelson they've settled in, their chemistry and roles got better."
Williams and fellow starting guard Jarvis Summers each have a score of treys, though this is not the team's strongest point. Ole Miss began the month tied for last in league made-threes, even ironically with Alabama which contributed to a grind-it-out evening in Tuscaloosa last Saturday. But they made just four longballs against State three weeks ago, in 13 tries, and still won.
Which is why Stansbury focuses on the frontcourt matchup where Ole Miss beat the Bulldogs. It wasn't so much a slight edge in overall rebounding which made a difference, it was all the second-chance points provided by Reginald Buckner, Terrance Henry, et.al. 6-9 junior forward Buckner in particular was a headache at each end with a 19-point, 15-rebound effort. Above and beyond effort in fact, which made big Dogs look flat-footed too often.
"We can't let him get as many rebounds around that rim, dunks and put backs," Stansbury said. "That was where he was at his best."
Bulldog counterpart Arnett Moultrie remembers, though the two were not directly matched up. "Last game Reggie had a career night," Moultrie said. "Even thought I didn't guard him it still came out he had a career night against me. So we have to guard him." Easy to see Moultrie is taking this rematch personally, though he had nothing to be ashamed of in a 10-point, 12-rebound first round. Cohort and center Renardo Sidney was solid as well with 17 points and nine boards. For that matter both big Dogs tossed in a three-pointer.
The whole team tossed up 29 trey-tries, making ten, which is usually sufficient for success. Steele sees the need to be better this time, especially if the Rebels drop into a zone at times. "If they play us like that again, me and Rodney (Hood) are going to take advantage," Steele promised. "We're going to drive and kick if they play the zone, and this time we're definitely going to knock down three-point shots."
Stansbury certainly doesn't expect his backcourt, or big guys for that matter, to hesitate against any zone looks. "You don't have to beg us to shoot it!" he said. But he still wants the offense to run through Moultrie and Sidney first and frequently as man-for-man these Dogs are bigger and better. Depth, now, is another matter because Ole Miss can and will shuttle their frontcourt bodies in and out all evening and try to wear the Dogs down. Or, draw fouls, an approach all SEC opponents apply this years.
State knows it well and Stansbury seeks tricks to spare his two starters foul trouble much as practical. Against Auburn he let Sidney watch the early minutes, which worked out well. "Just trying to find any way we can to pace him," Stansbury said. "And he has a tendency to pick up some quick fouls." Sidney was cautious about that and while it allowed him to shoot 5-of-5 for 17 points, he also got just three rebounds.
Related to fouls, sending Rebels to the stripe isn't a bad percentage call as they are last in SEC free throwing. They missed 13 of 30 shots in their win in fact, with Buckner 3-of-10. State just doesn't have the fouls to give though with a thin roster. Stansbury is trying now to steal minutes with small forward Shaun Smith and reserve center Roquez Johnson to rest starters, most obviously freshman small forward Rodney Hood. Not that the coach gets any cue from the kid about being tired.
"He's one that would never tell you. Some others would tell you!" Stansbury said. But the coaches are being careful about the practice grind on Hood these days, for that matter the entire starting squad. Hopes that guard Deville Smith might become available again got a Monday boost as the freshman returned to classes and practices from a two-week leave. Playing, though, might be a ways off still said Stansbury. "I haven't made any decision, we'll leave it at that."
Until then all available Bulldogs have to tough it out. Not just that, but play ever-harder as Steele said. Because nobody will cut State any slack as SEC season makes the half-way turn. Least of all a Rebel rival going for its first sweep of the series since 1998. Steele repeated, there is no secret to getting things back to normal.
"Just play hard. We just have to play hard and defend and lock down all their players. Play together, and win the game."