Understand, this is not meant to imply that a 80-74 victory at Xavier was a monumental moment in MSU annals. A very good win, to be sure, one which adds valuable credits to the team account for NCAA seeding-and-siting calculations. But still not a single win that we'll be talking about years from now, unless of course the Musketeers go on another tear next March. In another Region, if you please.
What honestly impresses this opinionator, and many more of comparable Bulldog tenure, about State's Saturday success in Cincinnati is just how unremarkable the win was. We can include the Monday night win at New Orleans in that category, too. Seriously, think back a moment: was it all that long ago that when a Bulldog team headed out on the road to—well, darn near anywhere—that our earnest hopes were for a competitive effort and with luck a win in a hostile environment? (OK, the UNO game didn't fall into that category exactly, as I'd say two-thirds of the announced 1,500 folk in the gym were State fans.)
But the point is still valid. A State team wins a nationally-televised, inter-conference matchup, and the general response goes something like ‘hey, good job, guys, what's next?' And in some more demanding cases, there are critiques of what the Dogs did wrong and must do better.
You could call it spoiled. Rick Stansbury doesn't mind; today as he and the staff review tape and scout for the upcoming set of games they are taking a similar approach. The coaches are picking apart every aspect of the win for points to emphasize this week. Not because they're spoiled, though; because Stansbury is already thinking about SEC season, where the Bulldogs have a championship to defend.
Again, let's not diminish what beating a Xavier program, on their court, is worth. Or the coach's pre-game concerns about this matchup, this trip, this setting. "I was anxious to see how our team would respond," Stansbury said. "I'm proud of how we handled this game. We didn't get rattled."
The Dogs had every chance to rattle there towards the end, when a 16-point lead evaporated into a two-shot contest. I don't know if the team watched the day's earlier game from just down the interstate, when our SEC cousin Kentucky came back from an identical margin on Louisville's home floor to win. I can say that there was obvious potential for a similar result.
But not with these road warriors. With the game on the line the Bulldogs got a couple of consecutive clutch stops and rebounds, and made the right free throws at the right time. In fact, a team that hadn't been all that strong at the stripe missed just one foul toss down the stretch.
Sure, the evening could have played out much more comfortably. There was a spate of turnovers and less-than-ideal shots in the final five minutes that let things get closer than necessary. The obvious cause was a tiring team, something to discuss more later. Yet in a way the finish was something the Dogs needed at this point of the season. Or at least that's how the coach spun it.
"These games are what grow you up and bring you together as a team," Stansbury said. "I saw a little leadership, and toughness."
Indeed, those are aspects of particular interest right now. Or the leadership thing, at least. Toughness has almost become a program trademark if we can judge by how State teams typically defend and rebound. Maybe it takes a coach's eye to gauge the degree of toughness the Dogs are playing with, and Rick is expecting more from this team.
Leadership, now, that is something even casual fans have noted is, oh, not lacking, exactly, but nor is it as obvious as in last year's team. With good reason of course. No team in the land could lose a take-charge playmaker like Timmy Bowers, or a lineup ‘glue' guy like Branden Vincent and not miss at least a measure of leadership. Yet we also have to note that in seasons-past Stansbury teams have graduated team leaders and somebody has always stepped into the gap the next year.
Mabye now we're starting to see which player will. Or more accurately, which Dogs. I have a hunch that there might not be one classic lead-Dog on this team, that instead it will have to be a collective effort all season long. I could be wrong; someone might yet emerge as the undisputed heart and mind of the club.
But ‘til then there are encouraging signs from much of the active lineup that more Dogs are willing to take responsibility at crucial moments, at both ends of the floor. We can see it in some plays made this past week. At New Orleans, f'instance, you had to like how Lawrence Roberts shrugged off a frustrating first half to take over the second period. How in the interim the wingmen, who had not shot all that well at the arc for weeks, rained treys.
Last night it was the energy and tempo set by the backcourt that sent the game State's way, with Gary Ervin and Winsome Frazier pushing the pace end-to-end. How many times did we see the Dogs just flat out-run the Muskies, in both directions? And as Stansbury noted, pushing the ball doesn't always produce instant layups but it can create open jumpshots before the defense sets up. Frazier and Shane Power certainly took advantage.
At least they could before the team tired, bringing up a key December question: has Stansbury already settled on the ten (really, nine) guys to utilize in SEC season? The backcourt has taken shape pretty clearly, if just because of numbers here with Ervin and Jamall Edmondson the only true guards. Fortunately the juco transfer has found the range…and boy does he have it, with a couple of good 24-footers at UNO…and appears more confident handling the ball when necessary. Defense is another matter entirely, but again options here are limited unless you want Power at point. And Stansbury finally seems comfortable using both Ervin and ‘Mall on court at the same time.
The rotation of Ontario Harper and Dietric Slater as Dogs-of-all-trades has been a success so far, encouragingly so. The guys know their offensive roles and generally settle for shots they can make; their defense speaks for itself. Throw in Power and Frazier, and I can't help but think this is the most versatile bunch of wingmen Stansbury has ever boasted, and that's saying a lot.
Which brings us to the real area of concern. Outsiders would find it hard to believe looking at Roberts' double-double stats, yet Dogs can't help but wonder how the team can get more, or more consistent, production in the post. OK, the simple answer is to put Roberts under the bucket and keep him there where he will again be the best center in the SEC, maybe the country. But of course he came back to college to play power forward. Thank heavens Roberts remains a team player first. Or maybe the slow shooting start due to the fractured schnoz has made it easier for him to stay closer to the goal. Still it's fun to watch Lawrence pull up at the top of the key and fire.
Or, pass. State has spent the last couple of weeks emphasizing the high-low offense with Roberts on one end of the pass and either Marcus Campbell or Wesley Morgan on the other. I should look up just how many times the first shot of a night has come from Campbell, as State typically attacks inside first. I won't comment on the efficiency, other than to say Marcus is getting better there.
But the big senior is also increasingly frustrated and frustrating, as that TV close-up after a foul last night reminded. At New Orleans he forced some shots a step farther out than called for. He is staying put better on defense lately, but the rebounding remains not up-to-potential. Morgan hasn't dominated the boards, either, but he's a sharper passer in high-low and picks shots carefully.
I have no idea if Stansbury plans any changes in starters or minutes right now. What we will be watching for Monday and Wednesday night is how and when the seven-footers are used in games that, frankly, the Dogs ought to completely dominate. Also, will rookie Charlie Rhodes return to the court this week, particularly in his Jackson hometown Wednesday evening? And when will Walter Sharpe earn his way out of the doghouse? That show of bench-sulking in the last home game was not a good sign, but he's young and early lessons can be the hardest.
After the Xavier game Stansbury began to say he'd played a lot of guys a lot of minutes, then he corrected himself. "I needed to sub more," he said. "But I had the guys that I trusted out there." Guys that got tired, at some cost to rebounding and defense as well as ballhandling. About the late turnover, Stansbury noted "We might not always have a cushion." He's also stressing a better understanding of time-and-score…which ought not be a big issue this week, one would think.
No, these two games should be more interesting as indicators of how State intends to attack SEC opponents. And related to that, the last two weekends have been much better for the league. I know, some long-time fans find it impossible to pull for old rivals in non-conference matchups. Trust me, it was good for State for Kentucky to beat a CUSA squad…and how the heck did LSU lose their game? The SEC needs December wins to help the conference power rating come March, which in turn helps State. Trust me. That means the Sugar Bowl Classic is a big day for our league as we take on two (admitted lower-rung) foes from the top-ranked ACC. Got both my credentials and room confirmed.
Oh, and Jackson-area folk not only get to watch the Dogs play Wednesday, they can catch the team at practice Tuesday afternoon in the Coliseum. Afterwards team and staff will be available for autographs. And Coach Phil Cunningham is speaking to the 120 Club at their Tuesday night meeting. These are two nights to reinforce Mississippi State's complete control of the metro-area when it comes to college hoops, eh?
See y'all there…if I can find a parking place.