Stansbury Sees Plenty Room For Progress

Mississippi State is not playing as well as possible right now. And Rick Stansbury kinda likes it that way. "It's good that you're not at your best right now," the Mississippi State coach says.

Understand, Stansbury and the Bulldogs can be justifiably happy with how they currently are playing the game. They are 13-2 with a seven-game winning streak, ranked in both national polls, and successfully opened their Southeastern Conference schedule with a 90-53 homecourt rout of Auburn. A record-setting rout, at that, with the largest victory margin ever for MSU in the 90-year-old series.

Yet coach and team alike are taking paradoxical pleasure in their situation. Stansbury explains that it is good to be in this position, "and that there is room for improvement. I don't think any of us were satisfied with the way we're really playing vs. what we're trying to get done."

State's big Dog agrees with his coach. "We're capable of a lot of things," says forward/center Lawrence Roberts. "I think we'll continue to get better each game. We're not at our best yet, each game we're improving on a little thing here or there."

While 37-point victim Auburn might disagree, the consensus in the State camp is that this team really can improve in all sorts of ways. Nothing really major, of course, or the Bulldogs wouldn't be a top-25 team right now. But is this another championship-caliber club? That thought is what motivates MSU's talk of further progress.

"We're a good team," Stansbury says. "But are we doing all the little things and playing together every trip to reach the goals we want to? We've gotten better, no question, we'll continue to get better."

Or as senior forward Ontario Harper put it, rankings and standings are for observers to discuss. "We're concerned about ourselves."

Mississippi State is also concerned about their next test, Saturday afternoon at Mississippi (1:00 CT, Fox Sports Net). The Bulldogs and unranked Rebels (9-5, 0-1 SEC) renew the ancient rivalry in Oxford, and the visiting team doesn't want to hear about their six-game winning streak going back to 2002. Or, their ongoing 15-road-game winning streak. Or, how this matchup appears, on paper, like a major mis-match in MSU's favor.

"It's one of those games that no matter what is going on in our or their season it's going to be a hard battle," says Roberts. "And we'll be at Ole Miss so they'll be into it, their crowd will be into it. We have to come out fighting."

State is actually anticipating a fight similar to what Auburn gave in the first half last night. The final margin obscures the fact that at 8:00 of the first half the Tigers were leading by a point, with their undersized lineup creating some matchup problems and MSU getting sucked into a breakneck style of play. Only when the Dogs settled into a (slightly) more controlled pace did they establish complete control and blow the visitors off the court.

Saturday's game could line up comparably, if the Rebels are indeed without starting center Tommie Eddie. The 6-7 postman did not play in a 69-46 loss at Arkansas, reportedly for eligibility reasons, and as of Thursday the State staff could not know if Eddie would return for UM's home SEC opener.

"He is a big presence in there for them," Stansbury said. "They have other guys but if he is not in there it will allow their perimeter guys more shots." Which sounds a lot like the small Auburn offense that put up 38 three-point attempts, ten good, against State.

There's no real way to ‘plan' for an opponent getting hot from long-range, other than to guard the perimeter as aggressively as possible. "We'll have to contain them on the defensive end," point guard Gary Ervin said. "That's going to be the key." Nor will State radically adjust the offensive approach if Umiss is shorthanded Saturday.

The Bulldogs will still go to Roberts inside early and often. "That's our plan every game no matter who we play," Stansbury said. "Ole Miss makes it difficult to do sometimes, but we won't do anything different. We are going to play that way no matter where we are."

Along that line of thought, State will also be ready to go ‘small' as necessary. And in fact the Bulldogs have played their best ball so far with Roberts in the pivot, Ervin at point, and essentially three swingmen roaming inside and out. "Our team functions better when we're small," Stansbury says.

MSU was smaller than usual in the SEC opener with 14-game starting center Marcus Campbell benched for what Stansbury called "unacceptable conduct" without specifying. "It was a one-game suspension, he'll be ready to play the next game," the coach said. Whether Campbell is back in the starting lineup is another issue. State could again let Wesley Morgan take the tipoff, or open with Roberts at center. But both seven-footers will play at Oxford.

So, probably, will rookie pivotman Walter Sharpe, who has worked through his fall semester issues and is back in Stansbury's good graces. The coach wants to give the freshman center more minutes now that SEC season is here. "We really think he can help us. And it's not been the court problems. Before you get on the court you have to understand the little things, because if you don't get those things straightened out in your life you'll never get the basketball part straightened out.

"And to Walt's credit he's been making gradual improvement since Christmas. I meant to get him in against Virginia Tech and the game tightened up. We went into this (Auburn) game going to play him no matter what. Because he's got some offensive ability out there that helps our team. Hopefully we can keep bringing him along."

Stansbury is less certain about frosh forward Charles Rhodes' status. The coach has indicated, without saying it directly, that Rhodes might have some health issues (reportedly back problems). Rhodes did play on December 22, after the fall semester ended, but not on the 30th in the Sugar Bowl Classic. Nor did he dress out for Auburn, which Stansbury called a "coaches decision." As to whether Rhodes will play this weekend, or this season, the coach is undecided. "We really don't know yet, to tell you the truth."

Realistically, though, the two freshmen aren't likely to play huge parts in league season. Stansbury has essentially set his eight- and nine-man rotation depending on whether State plays ‘big' or ‘small.' "It will be mix and match all year with this team," he says.

"We're going to see different types of defenses all year long. We talk about our height, we play Harper a lot of minutes at the ‘four' so we're not as big as a lot of teams. But we have the ability to go big and go small, and through the season you have to have guys come off the bench and be productive."

The offense has gotten increasingly productive as Ervin develops in the playmaker's role. The soph still at times outruns his teammates and gets himself in turnover-prone situations. But Ervin is clearly becoming a sharper decision-maker without negating his end-to-end strengths.

"No question he's gotten better as a point guard," Stansbury said. "He's gotten better at shifting gears." And, at picking when to keep going at the rim and when to veer away from the lane and find the open shooter. Unquestionably, the Bulldogs score best in transition. "But in this league you have to score in halfcourt," Stansbury says. "Gary's gotten better, and the biggest thing we want him to do is continue to push and be a pass-first point guard."

Besides, Ervin has more passing possibilities as other Dogs figure out the best ways they can score the ball. Roberts, who has averaged 22 points and 13 rebounds over the last seven games, is the first option. But every Bulldog now feels able to take and make the shot. "These guys have a lot of confidence and we open up things for each other," Roberts said. "We feed off each other."

As long as these Bulldogs stay hungry, Mississippi State has every opportunity to continue improving through this SEC season and, perhaps, be at their best come tournament time. Now that would satisfy coach and players alike.

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