From The Dawghouse

The holidays, and the pre-conference schedule, are all over. Now it's time for the Bulldogs to get down to their real work as Southeastern Conference play tips off.

"It's the start of a new season," Coach Rick Stansbury agreed during his Monday morning teleconference. A season that for the Bulldogs begins with unranked Auburn coming to Humphrey Coliseum. The Wednesday night game formally opens Mississippi State's defense of their 2004 SEC Championship.

How ready these Dogs are to play for a conference crown is a legitimate question. On the surface all seems well enough; Mississippi State got through the pre-SEC slate with a 12-2 record. The only losses were to national powers Syracuse and Arizona by respectable margins and on generally hostile courts. Stansbury's team has been ranked for two months and finished December rated 21st.

Yet concerns remain about just how strong, how settled, and how prepared the Bulldogs are for their 16 league contests. For that matter, for this opening week, which pits State against Western Division rivals Auburn and Mississippi. Neither opponent is anything close to a postseason prospect of course, and they are forecast to fight for the bottom slots in the Division standings.

Still, these Bulldogs have not exactly established themselves as a dominating squad. Least of all to their coach. "I don't think we're where we have to be," Stansbury says.

That's why he is not letting his team take Wednesday's league lidlifter for granted, regardless of mismatches in size and experience. If anything Stansbury has some special worries about the 9-4 Tigers. "Auburn is a different type of opponent than we're used to seeing," he said.

"They present a lot of problems. They're so-called disadvantages at one end might be an advantage at the other end. Any time you have five guys that can shoot the three and score it makes them a difficult team. On nights when the opponent is not shooting well and they get a couple of stops, they're going to beat a lot of people."

The Tigers are averaging around 80 points with five players proving able to put up double-digits any given night. "Even the guys off the bench can shoot it," Stansbury added.

State's coach has enough concerns about his own team, starters and bench alike. That could seem odd given the Bulldog record and statistics, which 98% of the country's clubs would gladly call their own at mid-season. Obviously any coach would love to have a consecutive-weeks league Player of the Week in the lineup.

That would be forward/center Lawrence Roberts, who received the honor—again—Monday morning after piling up 25 points and 19 rebounds in a 71-65 win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl Classic. Roberts was already the reigning SEC POTW after crushing Jacksonville State with 22 points and 20 more boards a week earlier. The senior All-American goes into SEC season averaging 18.4 points and 11.6 rebounds, and leading all active NCAA players with 44 ‘double-doubles.'

Safe to say, Roberts has completely recovered from his early-season struggles with a broken nose, strained neck, and one-game suspension. "Trust me, you don't need to look at a stat sheet to know he's a different person," Stansbury says. "I think he's playing with great balance. He's rebounding the ball in his area, and offensively he's been pretty consistent for us, he's scoring in different ways. And he's playing with a lot of confidence."

It's the rest of the lineup that has at least slightly shaken the pre-season confidence in this team. Not that they have played poorly, exactly, but that this team has not functioned quite as smoothly as expected…or as demanded, really. One way to see the situation is that Mississippi State has a bunch of players who have performed well enough, often enough, to win all the games they were supposed to. They just haven't dominated the easy opponents and games with middle-weight foes have been closer, longer, than seemed necessary. To fans and media, that is.

For his part Stansbury could care less about margins of victories. He is much more concerned with how efficient the Bulldogs have been, or not, in his areas of emphasis. Most notably, rebounding and defending. The team has done both well, but not as well as the coach demands. The rebounding is getting better now, Stansbury reports. Defense?

"There are still some areas we're not as efficient as we need to be. But I think this team is a work in progress all year long. When you're playing a Gary Ervin and Marcus Campbell and guys off the bench are new there are going to be areas you're not as satisfied with." The area of most annoyance is right under the backboard, oddly. "I think we give up too many easy baskets, too many easy baskets around that hole. I don't think we defend inside consistently."

That's where 7-0 senior Marcus Campbell starts. The veteran did have a solid game, particularly in the second half, against Virginia Tech. Still Stansbury wants more from the big man in SEC play, such as more blocked shots. "He has to get better at defending that basket. We may have to give him some more support in there to make that happen."

That's an interesting comment in the current context. The obvious implication is playing Roberts a step closer to the rim on defense, but that inevitably risks more fouls. Besides, Roberts is in the post enough minutes when State goes ‘small' and replaces center Campbell with 6-4 Ontario Harper as ‘big' forward. Stansbury has seen some encouraging signs from 7-0 sub-center Wesley Morgan, but depth after that is green and not getting many minutes to grow right now.

Because rookie big men Walter Sharpe and Charles Rhodes have essentially vanished from the rotation roles they had in November, while Roberts was getting up to speed. Sharpe is back in good graces after serving a team suspension in early December, but did not play in a tight game against Tech. Rhodes' status is a bigger question this week. He played in his Jackson hometown on the 22nd, then did not make the Sugar Bowl Classic trip. "We left him at home," was all Stansbury would say at the time.

Monday morning the coach did not offer any updates on Rhodes, whether he is on campus and practicing today, and a closed workout means waiting until Wednesday to see if he is dressed out to start SEC season. Staff members have implied that the young forward might have injury issues and could be a medical waiver candidate, while other MSU officials have said previously this is unlikely.

For his part Stansbury does not seem worried, and his morning comments seemed to indicate both Sharpe and Rhodes are still finding their roles. "Like all freshmen it's a big learning curve for them," the coach said. "Everything, on and off the court. Understanding how hard they have to play every day and every possession, that's such a change. Both are still trying to understand that, but both have great upsides."

Of more immediate focus is establishing the player rotation for this week. Stansbury doesn't think this has been settled completely yet. "It's evident we're playing Wesley Morgan, Dietric Slater and Ontario Harper, those are basically the three guys consistently in the rotation. One more guy I'd like to get more time is Jamall Edmondson." The junior guard had his pre-SEC minutes interrupted by a urinary infection that put him in the hospital for Christmas. He played two minutes in New Orleans, but should be back to strength this week.

Edmondson's forte is spelling Ervin at point a few minutes, and putting up jumpshots beyond the three-point arc. That's another aspect Stansbury wants to improve, and one way is getting more open longballs for senior swingman Shane Power. "I'd like for him to become more aggressive offensively for us."

For that matter the coach wants Mississippi State to go on the attack at both the offensive and defensive ends of the court, and get their SEC season off to a successful start. After all, they have one crown to defend and hopefully another one to win.

A Lighter Wallet After Visiting Fat City…

It wasn't actual SEC competition, but the Sugar Bowl Classic was a modest win for the conference as Mississippi State eased by Virginia Tech and LSU beat Florida State. Even if the victims were admittedly lower-rung members of the Atlantic Coast Conference those two victories should provide the SEC a needed boost in power rankings. And come March seeding-and-siting debates, every RPI point helps.

There is little the league can to do help its power-rating, and the scores of November/December make a case that the SEC is well behind the ACC, Big XII, and others. From now on it's every team for itself, and as January tips off I'd say only four squads—Kentucky and Florida from the East, State and Alabama on this West side—should be comfortable regarding a NCAA bid. And with league RPI concerns, two other bids might be all that's available…which should make for a really fun February.

Back to New Orleans for a moment more; this was the third year running Mississippi State has participated in the Sugar Bowl event. The odds are pretty good that future Bulldog teams will also be able to spend some holi-days in New Orleans.

Nothing has been inked onto contract paper for next season yet, but the way athletics director Larry Templeton talked before State's win over Tech it certainly sounds as if the odds are good for a return next winter. "I think they're pleased with the turnout," Templeton said, speaking of both the Bowl Classic organizers and the Southeastern Conference. My unofficial eye figured at least 3,000 Bulldog fans, maybe more, were in the N.O. Arena, and to my aging ears it sounded like many more when things got tense. So the SBC folk certainly should have appreciated the MSU turnout.

I didn't stay for the LSU game (our party had a table waiting at Mandina's for lotsa deep-fried cholesterol) so I've no idea what their crowd was like. I do know the SEC and SBC hope to continue having State and LSU as home teams for future Classics, and I'm all for it no matter how much a decent room and two evenings of fine eatin' costs in the City. If my late farmer-father knew I'd paid over three figures for a meal Wednesday night at Bayona's, or $3 for a Diet Coke at Howl At The Moon, well, he'd disinherit me posthumously.

Money is another good reason for the Bulldogs to hope they have a standing invitation to New Orleans. Templeton said State received $75,000 for the appearance, and there are not many events available for the Dogs to play in during the school break that pay that well. "And it's hard to find another game so many of our fans would be able to attend this time of year," Templeton added.

I'm all for it. Though, there is one previously-unspoken question here: when Bulldog football returns to the bowl scene, would that cut heavily into the crowd following the basketball team in late December? Almost surely…unless, of course, the gridiron team just happens to earn a berth in that big bowl game played in the Superdome after New Years. In that happy event I'd be willing to buy a few rounds of Diet Cokes for a whole bunch of friends and fans at every dang joint in town.

The tips are on y'all, though.

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