"For us to beat Kentucky we have to have everybody clicking," the coach said. "On all cylinders." Stansbury even quipped that if all Dogs weren't firing for this matchup with the nation's top-ranked team he might resort to a "squirt of ether."
Jokes aside, Mississippi State (19-8, 6-6 SEC) has put itself in a pretty combustible situation, one which belies the last part of Hood's commentary. The Bulldogs could continue in their current direction and end up where nobody could have imagined even two weeks ago: outside the NCAA Tournament and wondering just what happened. In fact they already are, with State players as uncertain as anyone how they have dropped from striking distance of 2nd in the SEC standings to a four-way tie for fourth and potential loss of a first-round conference tournament bye.
"I don't know," shrugged senior team captain Dee Bost. "Have you asked Coach Stansbury that? He might know." At least Bost does know that his squad can still control their post-season future with four regular season games left. Besides, "If we're going to fix it tomorrow will be the right time to fix it."
Easy for him to say. Not at all simple to do as besides a last-second loss at Indiana months ago nobody has found a fix for Kentucky. Even Stansbury won't downplay the challenge in store as a struggling State squad takes on the best bunch in the league and quite likely the land.
"That's just calling it what it is. We have to hope we can play to our capabilities, and maybe have something to do with Kentucky not playing as well."
A tall order given that even when the Wildcats aren't hitting all dozen cylinders they still outrun everyone. Or, overpower them. Four Kentucky starters are averaging double-digit points and the fifth is just under it. But statistics are mere decoration on this complete-team cake. Whether it is the inside authority of Anthony Davis or the backcourt intensity of Doran Lamb, Marquis Teague, and Darius Miller, there isn't much anything the Wildcats aren't capable of getting done on hardwood.
Freshman Hood can still look forward to his first go-round with the SEC's standard-bearer. Is the rookie intimidated by this matchup? "Of course not. It's Kentucky, number-one team in the country, nobody thinks we can win. We're not going to back down from them, we're going to come ready to play."
Ready or not tipoff arrives at 8:00 Tuesday. Kentucky native Stansbury also usually anticipates this shot as his home-state squad, despite a 4-12 record in the rivalry (though, 1-8 when UK is ranked). There was a two-year stretch though where his State teams took three-straight games, one in the 2007 SEC Tournament. Since then the Wildcats have resumed control with three wins, though two were in overtimes and last year State gave UK quite a scuffle in Lexington, 85-79.
But this time and team? Stansbury says Coach John Calipari's club is in another league now. "He's got them to play at a level that's got them whatever they are." Which has been a level more than sufficient turn back the best shots of SEC opponents. Such as holding game Vanderbilt scoreless down the deciding stretch in Nashville two weeks ago. Or, when Davis got in early foul trouble last Saturday, shrugging off an Ole Miss first-half lead to get the routine home win.
"(Ole Miss) hung around some, the second half click-click-click!" Stansbury said. Naturally that was a home game and an all but sure thing for Kentucky per the MSU coach's dictum that in the SEC odds are always against a road team. Of course that would imply Mississippi State would have an edge in Humphrey Coliseum tomorrow, correct?
"We're totally different than Kentucky!" Stansbury responded.
Certainly the Bulldogs didn't use their home-court edge the last time out, absorbing an overtime defeat by Georgia. That snapped a 14-game home win streak for State. Upsets happen of course, and State had pushed the Hump luck pretty hard much of the season already. Still the Dogs were rattled, not to mention annoyed at themselves. "We didn't play well defensively," Bost said.
Ensuing losses to LSU and Auburn though have sprung from other causes. "LSU, I don't know what happened," Bost said. "And then Auburn." What made losing all the worse was each time State has started strong and built good leads, even dominating margins. And, watched them evaporate. "When they make their run, we don't respond quick enough," said Bost.
Stansbury has his own ideas. "At LSU we just didn't finish the game. Auburn, we had to do some things from a rotation standpoint. But I thought we played hard. We had as many open shots as we've had in a while and just didn't make some. Jalen, Dee, and Hood were what, 3 of 18 (at the arc), and we had some good looks."
State had to shoot a lot at Auburn because they were shorthanded inside. Center Renardo Sidney missed the game with back spasms which Stansbury now says began showing up prior to the LSU game. A shot and treatment weren't enough to get the junior ready for Auburn; now Bost and Hood say Sidney is telling teammates he will play Tuesday. Stansbury is more guarded for now.
"We just had a walk-through yesterday, didn't do a whole lot. So he basically hasn't done anything at all since last Tuesday. Today we'll see where he's at. After practice we'll figure out a little bit more." Sidney's back issues came after three games where he averaged a season-most 29 minutes for such a stretch. But Stansbury gives that no credence as an explanation for the back issues.
The coach has been frustrated by second-half struggles by the entire team, whoever is on the court. Of course those are generally worn-down Dogs by the final minutes with State's limited roster these days. At least he has gotten guard Deville Smith back in the mix after missing six games with still-undefined ailments. An overworked backcourt can use the aid, though Bost downplays the fatigue-factor his coach has espoused lately.
"That shouldn't be the excuse," Bost said. "We train for this in the preseason so we should be used to it." Bost is more concerned about his own and his team's iffy outside shooting in the losses. Though, Stansbury cautions, the sort of open looks Bulldog guards and forwards have enjoyed for most of the season won't be there tomorrow.
"In a game like this we have to score points to have any kind of chance," said Stansbury. "Kentucky is the best defensive team in the country, they don't give up a lot of threes and they have that big boy back there." As in record-setting shot blocker Davis. Small wonder the coach wants his biggest bodies available to throw at Kentucky postmen. Though, "I don't know if anybody all year long has come out and said we took advantage of that matchup. But they'll be going at each other."
In the bigger State picture, Kentucky starts the SEC stretch run to settle conference tournament seeding—something of supreme importance for this squad—and reinforce their NCAA case. The latter has taken some unexpected hits and while the Bulldogs still can set their own course the margins have just about vanished. In fact, State now has to keep an eye on LSU and Alabama who are also 6-6 and seem to have easier closing stretches. For all intents and purposes the Saturday showdown in Tuscaloosa is already looming as a make or break for the Bulldogs.
Of course a monumental MSU upset at home would be even bigger, and soothe some bitterness of recent setbacks. Still, "Forget the bad taste, you're just trying to get a win," Stansbury said. "If you do its very special. But it's just one win."