So, forget the fact that Mississippi State currently boasts a 13-game winning streak in true road games. That the Bulldogs haven't been beaten on an opponent's own court since March of 2003. Or that they have not lost a non-SEC road game since December of 2000. Just focus on the challenge this team faces as the Dogs venture into Cincinnati for a Saturday evening game with Xavier (8:00ET/7:00CT, ESPN2). Certainly MSU players already are.
"We talk about that it's really one game at a time," point guard Gary Ervin says, but… "We were happy to get New Orleans out of the way, now we're excited, we want this game against Xavier very badly."
Very badly, indeed. State veterans recall all-too-well their – loss last March in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and while they can't exactly pay the Musketeers back for that upset in Orlando these Bulldogs can settle some scores. And, add another road ‘W' to an impressive list of hosts State has victimized.
State's 74-59 win at New Orleans on Monday night was the first true ‘road' game of this pre-SEC season, but not the first road trip. Despite being the nominal host Stansbury's team was forced to play the regional rounds of the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic on a neutral court in Birmingham, then advance to a pair of games in Madison Square Garden. Then came another neutral-site matchup in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim.
The Bulldogs posted a 3-2 record in those appearances, though losses to Syracuse in New York and Arizona in Pac-10 country came before less-than-neutral crowds. Three home wins, and now the initial true-road victory, let State take a 8-2 mark to Xavier where that road-streak is going to be tested.
And given how his team opened up at New Orleans, falling behind 9-2, and then allowed the Privateers to stay close much of the second half, Stansbury might have some reason for concern. He definitely doesn't want the Bulldogs taking road success and unranked opponents for granted.
"You want it the same mindset every day and every possession," Stansbury says, "because if you don't you get on that roller-coaster and one of those teams you're supposed to beat will slip up and beat you. Every team is good on the road, it's difficult away from home." Win-streak notwithstanding, that is.
The Bulldogs will take a national ranking into the weekend, yet too often this fall they have not looked or played like a top-25 team. That they still beat unranked foes (Syracuse was #5 at the time, Arizona #21) by comfortable margins is encouraging, as was a second-half rally that nearly caught the Wildcats at the end.
Yet Mississippi State clearly has room for plenty of improvement, especially on offense. The Bulldogs have not shot particularly well so far with just 42.4% accuracy through ten games. Only twice, against Nicholls State and Missouri-Kansas City, has this team shot over 50%. And long-range marksmanship has even more worrying at 31.5% after the Arizona loss.
That was why a 11-of-24 night at the arc in New Orleans was encouraging. In fact, the Dogs were better on long shooting than overall (43.5%) that game. And outside shooting is a definite ‘must' for this team, if All-America Lawrence Roberts is to play to all-world expectations. The senior had a tough start to his year, hampered for eight games by a mask protecting a broken and repaired nose.
The schnoz is healed; the game is still not quite up-to-strength. Roberts is now at 16.1 points and 10.4 rebounds and continues to lead all active NCAA players in career ‘double-doubles' at 42 (four this season). Yet he is shooting just 39.6% and 63.9% at the foul line, the price of both a preseason setback and a steady stream of double-teamming defenses focused on the big Dog.
His teammates forsee similar gameplans all season. "That's something we expect every game," forward Shane Power says. "That's how it's going to be in conference. I think he realizes when two guys are hacking on him it's best to draw a foul." In fact Roberts is taking the right at defenders more, and not settling for so many fallaway jumpers outside the lane.
Which puts pressure on him to make more free throws…and for backcourt teammates to take what the defenses give, as in open jumpshots. Which the Bulldogs have done all year, but too quickly. Once the fall season pace slowed down Stansbury had time to stress working the ball around the endless series of zones State is seeing, to get not just the first open shot but to take better ones. New Orleans showed progress.
"Early we had no movement," Roberts said. "Then we did a better job controlling things defensively, and in turn got some good offensive sets. We got patient and got some easy shots." Which gradually opened up the lane for Roberts to get quicker passes and baskets, so he could finish with another double-double.
So while State ideally wants the ball to go inside, it will take more consistent outside accuracy to spread defenders out and get Roberts one-on-one. Senior Winsome Frazier is the first longball option, and while he has been up-and-down at 35% Frazier is still as explosive a scorer as any in the SEC. He and Power have 40 treys between them so far.
The wild card is juco guard Jamall Edmondson, who had a breakout night at UNO with four treys—some of them from well beyond NBA range. He'd made five threes prior to that game. "I've just been trying to get in the flow of the game," says Edmondson, who knows how much this offense needs reliable outside scoring. "Every game we go into they double- and triple-team Lawrence, it leaves the shooters wide-open."
Stansbury's backcourt rotation has had soph Dietric Slater coming off the bench first, and he can put up the jumper at any time also. Now with Edmondson getting into the mix State has adequate depth to take into SEC season. But despite a long list of bodies, the frontcourt still has questions. Starting center Marcus Campbell has been inconsistent at each end, despite 50% shooting and 6.0 rebounds a game. After a couple of games the senior was openly upset and witnessed arguing with teammates trying to settle him down.
Campbell has started all ten games in the low post, but backup Wesley Morgan is getting in games earlier. The junior picks his spots as far as shooting, but is a sharper passer and works particularly well with Roberts in a high-low set. Last year Stansbury waited until the 14th game to make a lineup change, taking Campbell out of the pivot and putting Roberts in. Such a change may come sooner this season.
But it's not an automatic move, either, though Roberts is a much surer scorer in the low post. So far Stansbury has, when putting Roberts under the goal, to play 6-4 Ontario Harper at ‘big' forward. This lineup operates better on offense and plays man defense well, but gives up size. Backup PF Piotr Stelmach's minutes have been more limited than anticipated early on, and rookies Charles Rhodes and Walter Sharpe have been sidelined lately. Center Sharpe is being disciplined for lackluster practice habits; Rhodes missed the bus for the Arizona trip, but did get to play Arkansas-Little Rock and is not in the coach's doghouse any more.
Shooting and substituting are still pre-SEC questions; fortunately, whatever lineups Stansbury puts on court play up to program expectations on defense and the boards. Only Syracuse has shot better than 40% against State, which is allowing just 37% field-goaling for the season. And the Dogs boast a +7 rebound differential, as they bid to lead the SEC in rebounding for an unprecedented fifth-straight year.
"To win on the road you have to defend and rebound," Stansbury says, and his team is doing all of that. Or as Ervin says, "Defense wins championships. We've got enough scoring power on the team, we have to emphasize the defense."
One could argue that no team ever has enough scoring, but the Bulldogs have gotten enough points to win eight times already. Now they get another opportunity to score one more road-game win, before coming back to friendlier settings. State returns for a Monday game at Humphrey Coliseum with Florida A&M (7:30), then next Wednesday plays in a sold-out Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson against Jacksonville State (7:00). Yes, the Bulldogs will be glad to be home for a change.
"But we're not looking past anybody," Ervin says. "We'll talk about the next game afterwards."