Or at least that is how things stand today. This is an interesting week from a Mississippi State standpoint with a pair of familiar foes to face. Both LSU and Auburn gave the Bulldogs much tougher tests than anyone reasonably expected in Humphrey Coliseum at the time. Stansbury's squad had to hold off a furious late rally for a 76-71 win on January 25; then outlast Auburn 91-88 a week later. Neither were top-half conference clubs yet State was taken to the wire both times.
Of course that had been a home-court habit for the Bulldogs and one they were getting quite comfortable, even confident with. Then lowly Georgia gave State a serious jolt to the system, 70-68 in overtime, and suddenly Stansbury has a team to settle down. And, to keep focused on the bigger picture.
The loss probably cost State several post-season seeding slots, but not its SEC status. Thanks to losses by Florida and Vanderbilt—both also on home courts—the Bulldogs remain third in the league standings at 6-4 with a 19-6 overall record. For that matter a bad loss didn't knock MSU out of the polls entirely either. They are unranked by AP for the first time since November but are #23 in the caoches poll. Though, this isn't something their own coach cares much about at this point. Stansbury has more than enough on his mind regarding the pending rematches.
"I've said most of the year one of the most improved teams in this league is LSU," he repeated today. With reason. The Tigers are 14-10 and 4-6 SEC, meaning they've already more SEC wins this season than last year's 3-13 finish. For that matter LSU had just five league victories in the past two years combined. Since coming up short in Starkville they've taken two wins, both at home, while playing league leaders Kentucky and Vanderbilt respectably well.
It's no mystery why, Stansbury said. "Getting Johnny (O'Bryant) back gives them full depth inside." The 6-9 freshman and Mississippi native missed five games with a broken left hand, returning ironically for the Starkville game. O'Bryant wasn't a big factor that night but gave notice that when healthy he would only reinforce a Tiger frontcourt that might not be the most mobile but surely is powerful and patient. 7-0 center Justin Hamilton (13.7 points, 7.5 rebounds), 6-7 forward Storm Warren, or alternate choice 6-9 Eddie Ludwig offer all sorts of combinations to line up around the lane, with huge improvements in LSU rebounding and shot blocking the last two weeks.
As the Bulldogs also found out nearly the hardest way, there are some shooters here as well. Rookie Anthony Hickey almost by himself shot the Tigers all the way back with a frantic three-point assault, with only a last-chance turnover sparing State more trauma. Hickey now has 34 treys, tied for the team lead with Ralston Turner, while Andre Stringer is up to 29. Their season accuracy is not great, and in fact since state the LSU guards have been chilly on long shots. Still opponents have to increasingly respect the big Tigers more shooting space is coming open.
"They've got as good an inside presence as anyone in this league, and good perimeter people too," Stansbury said. Interestingly though the MSU coach is more concerned about what those people can do inside the perimeter, because LSU's guards will drive the lane for points. State had issues with that in round-one already and it is a greater threat this second time around.
"We have to do a good job on that ball screen, that's what they do," Stansbury said. "We have to do a better job keeping them out of the lane than we did here." Which is tricky under the current State circumstances, he admitted. "We're playing less zone this year, you have to come out and guard ball screens with different personnel."
Two problems are instantly apparent there. First, the Bulldogs have struggled with exactly that much of the season. "We don't go off ball-screens very well," senior guard Dee Bost agreed today. "We have to make our minds up to get better at it." And second, State hasn't been really reliable in any defensive aspect lately, screened or not.
In fact, for SEC season now the Dogs are giving up 46% overall shooting, and are at the bottom of league perimeter coverage at 42%. Even that stat doesn't reflect the whole picture because against MSU teams that haven't hit their long shots have a habit of warming up in a big way. Georgia showed that dramatically, and painfully. Stansbury spent summer and pre-season emphasizing better Bulldog defense but since the calendar turned 2012 things have gotten too erratic for comfort.
"There's times and moments it's not what you want it to be," Stansbury said. "Then there's times it is pretty good. But the consistency is not what we need it to be."
Bost said it can be frustrating. "We all try to find an answer to why we play defense so bad. We really don't know. But everybody has to take pride in stopping their man, and try to help each other." The irony is that State has shot well enough overall, and often very well at the arc, lately to keep winning despite lack of defense. Or they were up to Saturday afternoon when MSU's late shots missed…and Georgia didn't.
Much gets made each time a SEC team has the infamous two-day turnaround, playing Thursday and then Sunday to suit TV scheduling. This didn't hurt State much when the Dogs beat Tennessee and Alabama in that span back in January. Of course at that time the MSU bench was a bit better-established with Deville Smith in the backcourt rotation. The freshman guard has missed six games with undefined illness, and while Stansbury has slipped small forward Shaun Smith or reserve center Roquez Johnson onto the court a minute or two at a time depth has been an increasing issue.
Smith returned to the team last week but has yet to take the court. Stansbury is taking Smith to LSU, but as for playing? "We'll see. It may be a situation to work him in, last week wasn't a good situation." Shaun Smith has been helpful easing the load on freshman small forward Rodney Hood who, like all rookies, has been coping with the grind of a first full SEC season. Hood has still exceeded most expectations overall but Stansbury agreed a fall-off was inevitable.
"He's played more minutes than we anticipated, probably more than a freshman needs, but he's been very good for us. There's times he hasn't been as aggressive as he needs to be, as a freshman he might take a back seat to the Dees and the Arnetts, that's understandable."
Less understandable maybe was Arnett Moultrie's 12-point, six-rebound against Georgia. The power forward was 5-of-6 shooting but the total attempts was puzzling; Moultrie had averaged over 14 official shots in the previous five games and drawn lots of fouls on other attempts. And he has now gone four games without double-digit rebounds, something taken for granted earlier. That might reflect partly how well opponents are shooting these days, or Moultrie grinding down with a 34.3-minute game average in the post, or more defensive attention.
He, and center Renardo Sidney, certainly have their matchups cut out for Tuesday with all those tall Tigers. Stansbury still counts most on Bost to get things under control on both ends of the floor. "Being a senior he's definitely a guy you depend on so much." Bost is averaging 16 points now and the last two weeks has been on an outside shooting tear, 10-of-26 at the arc. Shooting guard Jalen Steele is even hotter, with three or more treys in the last six games and 21 total.
Not that Stansbury wants to try matching the Tigers shot-for-shot on their home court, of course. But State does have the firepower to do it. The key is turning up Bulldog defense to the level their coach has expected and not letting LSU get into any rhythm.
"We're going to play a really good LSU team, I think the only team that has beaten them there is Kentucky," Stansbury said. "So coming off a win or a loss it's a huge challenge either way. But no question, coming off a loss we have to get back up."