Though every matchup will make for prime-time viewing, the pairing of #6 Syracuse against #12 Mississippi State grabs the headlines as one of the most interesting games of this early season. Stansbury certainly sees the possibilities for his team.
"It's an opportunity early in the season to be in one of the best venues in the country and the media capitol of the world. At the same time you're doing it against one of the best programs in the country. Anytime you have an opportunity to be on this stage this time of the year, with a national audience, no question it can only help your program."
The Bulldogs take a 2-0 record to the Garden, after defeating Fairfield and Birmingham-Southern in the tournament's ‘MSU' Regional played in Birmingham. The wins did nothing to help or hurt State's season-opening ranking. In fact, this week's polls were almost identical to last week. Memphis is ranked #24, while St. Mary's is the lone unranked regional winner after upsetting California.
"No question all four teams are quality teams, well-coached," Stansbury said. "We're probably a little more excited just to have the opportunity to get there. We were fortunate to survive those first two games and have this chance to get to New York."
Stansbury can be forgiven if he has some flashbacks en-route. The last time Mississippi State played a four-team tournament in the Big Apple area, it was the 1996 Final Four across the river in the New Jersey Meadowlands. Stansbury was an aide on that Bulldog team, which met Syracuse in the semifinals. And Memphis coach John Calipari was the head coach of F.F. participant Massachusetts.
But that was generations ago in basketball time, and State lost its only game in '96. Stansbury would like to see an outcome more like the last time a Dog team played on the City side of the Hudson River. Two years ago State whipped Xavier in Madison Square Garden in a made-for-TV matchup.
A similar result will take some serious doing, though, as the Orangemen are among the handful of teams consistently listed as national title contenders this year. Syracuse is only a season removed from the 2003 national championship, and this squad can win another. "And they're coming off a great year with a lot of returning players," Stansbury said. "This is a very good Syracuse team."
Syracuse is a particularly challenging foe for a Mississippi State team that struggled offensively in Birmingham. Both Fairfield and BSC threw zone defensive schemes at a Bulldog squad playing without All-America Lawrence Roberts, suspended for the season-opener and sidelined the next night by broken nose that required surgery. His absence left a gaping void in State's middle that nobody filled on the offensive end.
"The film didn't lie," Stansbury said. "We just weren't very good inside." And not just because Roberts was missing, either. The season opened after just two weeks of team practices and State coaches had barely introduced zone-offense. "We were just trying to get to the point we could play. It's something at this time of the year we rarely do, and naturally we weren't very good attacking the zone. Hopefully the last few days we've gotten some better or at least know what to do."
And, hopefully, Roberts will be able to line up inside, against an Orangeman team famous for zone defending. But as the Bulldogs boarded their Tuesday flight, Roberts' status was still uncertain. Not only was the 6-9 forward/center getting used to playing in a protective mask, but in a brief attempt to practice Monday a rebound caromed into Roberts' face. "And he was done," Stansbury said.
"Right now we don't know. It's going to be a gametime decision, we'll see if he's able to go or not." And even if Roberts can go against Syracuse, he won't be able to beat the Orangeman defense alone. To do that the entire team has to shoot much better than they did at Birmingham, especially from the arc.
"I don't know if anybody has ever totally figured out their zone," Stansbury said. "There's no secrets against it, eventually you've got to make some perimeter shots. And to this point we haven't done that very well."
Stansbury did like how his team played defensively in the two opening wins, and the rebounding effort was up to standards most of the time though neither foe could match State's overall size. Then again, those victims were not anything close to the caliber of a Syracuse or any team in this CvsC field. So while the Bulldogs are going to New York City with a goal of winning games, the coach also intends to use the trip as a progress report in the early season and a guide in preparing for SEC play.
"This time of the year we're struggling to get our teams to a point to just play the game, and to play against this kind of competition and in this environment will only make you better later in the year," Stansbury said. "We're all trying to get our teams better right now. And playing against a team of the caliber of Syracuse will point up a lot of things we need to work on."
The Bulldogs do have one more piece to work with now, as junior guard Jamall Edmondson was reportedly cleared to being practice Tuesday. This could not be confirmed as practices remain closed. The juco transfer had been held out all preseason over a question about his eligibility and credits earned in a summer course. He did not practice or participate in scrimmage and exhibition games, and did not make the trip to Birmingham. It was not reported if Edmondson was on the travel party Tuesday.
The MSU group was to attend a reception Wednesday at the U.S.S. Intrepid, play Thursday and Friday, and return Saturday morning. As soon as they arrive home the Bulldogs have to prepare for a Sunday afternoon game against Nicholls State in Humphrey Coliseum. It is MSU's home debut.