Midway of the current campaign some seriously wondered if the program's focus had turned entirely to the future already. That was before the Bulldogs went into the first open date, and emerged a suddenly, shockingly different team, able to upset Florida, take care of Kentucky, and give Alabama a facemask-to-facemask fight in Tuscaloosa that a couple of assistants told me last week they are convinced State should have won. Not could have, should have won. And not, it wasn't just coach-speak. They were completely serious.
Staff and team alike are just as serious about the remaining opportunities of '04, too. Observing portions of three of the four off-week practices (nope, didn't make the 6:00 ahem Thursday session), the sense was of a football team that has just begun to appreciate their own potential and corresponding possibilities. It wasn't like a game-week, of course; there wasn't that sort of tension and anticipation. But last week's practices did have an air of a ball club that has seen investements in self and trust in the staff start to pay dividends, both personally and collectively. Yeah, you could say winning is the best cure for any ailment.
Yet the fact is the team's attitude began looking up before the scoreboards began looking better. And I suspect that no matter how these last two games turn out the overall trend is going to remain headed in the right direction. Naturally should the Dogs manage to beat either the Hogs or Rebs (or both) the rebuilding process would accelerate all the more, and everyone with an emotional stake in State would have a much more pleasant winter. But now it appears that, as far as the team itself is concerned, ending November '04 with no additional victories would not stop or even slow the progress underway.
That said, everybody likes to finish each step in a big task with a sense of satisfied success…so let's hope the Bulldogs can reprise their performances following the first open date. I'd be quite content to be 2-0 after the second break, wouldn't y'all? That will probably be the theme of the week, in fact, as State gets ready for Saturday's home finale.
The team should be as healthy as anyone can be in mid-November, but look for injury updates in the morning Croom teleconference story that should be posted by lunchtime…if I ignore the phone, that is. And sometime tomorrow we do expect word that the Egg Bowl will indeed be shown by J-P. Great. To get there by 9:30 with game-morning traffic means leaving by 7:45, with the alarm set for… Are we sure J-P wouldn't rather have Tennessee-Kentucky?
On The Road, Again…
The happiest guy in Starkville today is the one who gets to go home this week. Gary Ervin is one pleased puppy, because the Bulldogs are headed to New York City.
"Oh, man, I feel so good about that," the sophomore point guard and Brooklyn native said minutes after Mississippi State's win over Birmingham-Southern secured a berth in the ‘final four' of the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. "I spoke to my family, they didn't even ask did we win or lose; it was ‘when are you coming?'" For the record, the Ervin family can expect to see their boy back in the Big Apple on Wednesday evening when the Bulldogs arrive.
Fortunately for State's hopes of a productive visit to NYC and MSG, Ervin and team will be accompanied by Lawrence Roberts. In uniform, that is. The All-America power forward was at Birmingham, too, just unable to participate in the opening two games of the CvsC. As he sat the bench, bandage over his surgically-repaired nose, Roberts could only offer encouragement while the rest of the roster scuffled and scrambled and finally succeeded in beating scrappy foes from Fairfield and BSC. And obviously his absence from the court was the biggest single reason State was taken to the wire by both lesser opponents and, as Coach Rick Stansbury noted, just had to win ugly.
Very ugly. "They weren't pretty wins," Stansbury agreed. "But we'll get prettier. We'll get better."
This team has to get a lot better, faster, if it wants to A) match up with Syracuse in Thursday's semifinal game, and B) go into the more routine-regular season with a strong ranking. Because the Bulldog club we saw in Birmingham looked little like a top-twenty lineup, or a defending SEC champion. If you weren't there to watch, it was probably uglier than Jack ‘n Jim could convey.
But you know else? It was a successful trip, too. As the head coach said, "This time of year I'll take guts over beauty. Because we'll get better." Neither should we downplay the all-out effort both opponents gave (and I'd take Fairfield's forward on my team any time). Both teams took their best shot at scoring a early-season upset that would have made either's pre-conference year, and that's the sort of thing Bulldog hoops teams surely ought to be getting used to by now. Sorta like the good old days with the Diamond Dogs when everyone saved an ace or two for those midweek games.
And at bottom line, Ws are Ws and these will count just fine on the NCAA's seeding computer come March. Besides, now State gets to play in pre-season prime time in November's biggest stage. "We're thrilled to be going," Stansbury said. "And we're happy to win these two games, coming over here without our best player and trying to put a lot of parts together."
Without, it can't be stressed enough, the biggest and best part. I mean, there's a reason the CvsC program has a photo of Roberts on the cover…his anticipated presence has been key to Classic promotion. Now he gets to pull on the jersey and make his own season debut, or at least that's the presumption going into this week and a Monday check-up to see how the schnoz is healing. "Oh, yeah," Roberts said when asked if he'd play in New York City. "I'm just trying to get the doctor to back me!"
It's bound to be encouraging to Roberts and team alike that all know he has a better-defined squad to back the star player up again. Oh, sure, for much of the opening game it was as if the Dogs on-court were desperately searching for Roberts to throw the ball to…or maybe it was Timmy Bowers, so he could take charge and create a play. For sure that was not a polished offensive production at the BJCC (a court most unkind to State for two decades). The Dogs shot a collective 39% in two games, just 28% from the three-point arc, and an awful 51% at the foul line. Give a performance like that in January, and State is the former SEC champs.
Fortunately these Bulldogs remembered how to play on the other end of the court, and the opening-week defense was worthy of their preceeding four teams. Regardless of what lineup Stansbury cobbled together the team played pretty steady D and hit the boards consistently hard. And that ultimately wore down Fairfield and BSC, enabling State to get enough transition game going to beat those danged zone defenses downcourt for easier baskets.
Syracuse is a whole ‘nuther matter, though, and a far better team at zoning offenses into oblivion. Even if Roberts isn't 100% his presence has to put some balance back in the Bulldog attack. We hope. Because it surely was out-of-balance in Birmingham. "We got no point production inside," Stansbury said, understating the case. The three MSU postmen were a combined 4-of-11 (only 11 shots!) against smaller opponents; the Orangemen have real big men.
And, as noted, a reputation for zone defending. Stansbury says State can't settle for forced three-pointers this time. "You have to get it inside, get easy baskets, get to the foul line." Umm, the coach might want to re-think that last item unless his team can upgrade their free-throw shooting quickly. Still, scoring inside ought to open the wings up a step or two for Winsome Frazier and Shane Power to shoot the way we know they can. "Hopefully we've got a guy that can help us be more productive down there," Stansbury said.
That guy certainly wants to produce on a national stage. "It's the Mecca of basketball," Roberts says of the Garden. "Anybody who plays basketball, they'd love to play in the Garden. I'm just looking at it as a great opportunity." As for this early-season matchup of ranked opponents, guard Winsome Frazier is eager. "Hey, you've got to play the best to be the best. So we'll be ready for them."
And Ervin is absolutely ready for a personal homecoming. He admits that the entire team might have been looking ahead by a week—" We were thinking about going to New York instead of worrying about the business we had to take care of to get to New York City," he admitted. But the Bulldogs did take care of preliminary matters at the end, and now Ervin gets to play in the Garden a third time, hoping to get his first success in the Square. "I want to go home to win. I'm 0-2 in Madison Square Garden.
"It's cool to see your family, but once you're on the court it's all business."