Bulldogs Prepare For Showdown At Alabama

They successfully recovered from a couple of traumatic losses—first to the roster and then the record—with a lopsided SEC victory. Now, the Bulldogs have to show another sort of resilience.

"This was one win," Coach Rick Stansbury said after Mississippi State crushed Arkansas. "We have to put it behind us."

Yes, the coach is telling his team to forget their impressive homecourt performance before the Bulldogs return to the SEC road. More specifically, before State leaves for Tuscaloosa and an early-season Western Division showdown with Alabama. Tuesday's game at Coleman Coliseum is for the West lead, between 3-1 State and the 2-1 Tide.

Or at least that's how media and fans describe this renewal of what, for these past several seasons, has been the Division's most intense and most entertaining rivalry. Some veterans—survivors?--of recent battles between Dogs and Tide even admit that this is not just any SEC shootout.

"It's a big game, on their home floor," said senior guard Shane Power. "Their fans hate us and I'm not too fond of them any more! So it's going to be a great game, I just hope we can bring our best game to the floor."

The teams will be hard-pressed to match the impact of last season's set, when first Alabama snapped State's homecourt win streak in a nailbiter; then the Bulldogs pulled off an incredible second-half rally to erase a 19-point deficit, force overtime, and win the outright SEC Championship on the last shot of the day. Then again, State and ‘Bama annually find ways to take the interstate feud to new heights.

Certainly the Bulldogs will have to be at the peak of their game in this matchup of top-20 programs. "No question Alabama is one of the best teams in the country," Stansbury said. "They can score at all five positions, they're big, and have two perimeter guys in Kennedy Winston and Earnest Shelton that shoot it and play off the dribble. They've got a point guard playing well for them.

"On the road there it will be very, very difficult. But we're looking forward to going over there, we've had some success in Tuscaloosa. We're looking forward to the challenge."

Then again, it's not as if Mississippi State hasn't overcome a sizable challenge in the week-past. It was only last Monday that the Bulldogs learned for-sure that they would have to play most, if not all, the rest of the conference schedule without starting off-guard Winsome Frazier. After surgery for a broken small foot-bone, the most optimistic scenario does not have the senior returning until the end of February. For now Stansbury simply says Frazier is done for the year.

Teammates obviously have to play it that way, while hoping for the best. "Frazier was a humungous part of our team," said senior center Marcus Campbell. "Without him, it just means everyone else has to step up as a unit."

Saturday afternoon at Humphrey Coliseum, the Bulldogs definitely did that at Arkansas' expense. State bolted to a 21-2 lead and never let the Razorbacks closer than ten points in running away with a lopsided victory. Even without the SEC implications it was a much-needed win for a rebuilt lineup, and confidence booster of the best sort heading deeper into league season.

"We played as a unit, and that's the best thing," senior forward Ontario Harper said. "We've got to keep growing and get our identities and everybody feed off each other."

It sounds strange for a team with so many veterans of championship seasons to talk about finding ‘identities' at this stage of a career or schedule. Yet the loss of Frazier really is forcing a number of Dogs to revise both how they play individually and with each other. And even then replacing the second-leading scorer and top outside shooter—and best man-on-man defender—can't entirely be done. "Naturally there's a lot of things we'll never have without Winsome," Stansbury said.

A whole lot of things were missing in the first half of the first game without Frazier. In Knoxville, Tennessee took advantage of a suddenly-shaky State squad to win the first half by 16 points. The Bulldogs pulled themselves together in time to make a one-point game of it, but they still took their first road-game loss since March 2003 (ironically, also at Tennessee).

Saturday was a different matter. Having two more days to practice without (and accept the absence of) Frazier helped, of course. But so did a return to The Hump, the coach said, which helped with the mental impact. "It gets exposed on the road more than at home." On the home court, the Bulldogs showed they had their minds right again.

"We proved something that was a big question mark—can we win, can we play without Winsome Frazier?" Stansbury said. Now he wants his team to prove they can put the Arkansas win behind. Immediately.

"It's a long season. The team most able to survive 16 games is the team that wins championships. We're disappointed (about Tennessee) but it was one loss. It's the team that stays on an even keel best and longest that wins championships."

On Saturday the Bulldogs did have a championship look to them in dismantling a Razorback club that seemingly should have been primed to take advantage of State's uncertain situation. The degree of domination had some wondering if Arkansas came in overconfident, an idea Campbell disputed. "We are Mississippi State, and people do gun for us. I don't think Arkansas underestimated us, we're just Mississippi State."

True enough. But Mississippi State is still shorthanded for the foreseeable future and every Dog will have to give more, for longer stretches, for a couple of tough months. "When someone goes down somebody else has to pick up somehow," Stansbury said. In starting-lineup terms that somebody has been Jamaal Edmondson. The junior guard got his promotion based on scoring potential, but his first two starts haven't produced many points.

Yet against Arkansas the 5-9 Edmondson made some unexpected contributions at the other end against taller, faster foes. "Probably for the first time in his life he defended with some urgency," Stansbury said, "and I liked that. That's what we have to start getting from him more." And while Edmondson will face size mismatches almost every game, the coach thinks he can be effective. "You have to use toughness and quickness to offset it, get up under them and use some strength."

At the taller end of the lineup, Edmondson's roommate put together his best offensive SEC game ever as Campbell scored 15 points. "I feel my game is coming along," the senior said, "I'm getting better every game." Campbell couldn't pick a better time to take his game up a big notch, as his big body in the offensive post frees Lawrence Roberts to play with his face to the basket and keep racking up double-doubles.

"All we ever ask of Marcus is that he play hard and play with energy," Stansbury said. "When he does those two things everything else improves. He scores better and rebounds better."

In fact, Campbell played so well against Arkansas that the almost-unthinkable happened; fans who for weeks had criticized the big man's play were calling—loudly--for Stansbury to get Campbell back in the game immediately. The coach even admitted he ought to have played the starter a few more first-half minutes, though Razorback substitutions made a smaller defensive lineup more optimal at the time. "That's the versatility we have sometimes. The good thing is you know you have him there to come back in."

There's other good reasons for the Bulldogs to not put too much stock in one homecourt win, no matter how impressive. Arkansas, a straight man-to-man squad, played at least half this game in a zone defense. It was a natural move as State is now lacking the best outside scorer. Edmondson is the only true jump-shooter left on the roster, and far easier to defend than the 6-4 leaper Frazier. Roberts can score inside a zone but it takes more time and work; thus the need for Campbell to continue contributing low-post points. Defensively, the Dogs probably won't create as many half-court turnovers that become easy points, a crucial part of the MSU gameplan.

"Coach is always preaching defense," Campbell said. "Because if you play defense the offense will come."

But there is nothing State or Stansbury can do now except revamp the lineup and backups and play on. And hopefully, play as well as they did the last time out. "That's the key, and we've got to go on the road now and find ways to do the things we did at home," Stansbury said.

"Hopefully the more this group plays together the better we'll get, the more comfortable we'll get."

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