"You can't stick with something that doesn't work!" he said. "If it doesn't you try to mix it up again."
Stansbury was speaking after his Bulldogs, starting a re-mixed lineup, outmatched South Carolina 73-65 on the homecourt. The win makes Mississippi State, 16-4 overall, 4-2 in the SEC and though a game behind Alabama in the Division still with the third-best record in the league. Again, this isn't quite as strong a position as hoped at this season-point, and it took more effort to beat the Gamecocks than most expected.
But from his vantage point the coach sees a larger picture, one that has had to be re-focused under some serious January circumstances. "We'd like to win every game," Stansbury said. "But the positive things you look at, we're 16-4 right now and 4-2 in the SEC. Every game counts as one win and one loss and I'm proud of my team understanding what they had to do."
Re-reading between those lines produces an impression that coach and team saw South Carolina as a ‘must win' for State. In fact, it was absolutely vital, and not just for the normal early-season reasons. The Bulldogs were coming off a near-historic thrashing Tuesday night at Alabama, which cost them their Division lead. Moreover, the 49-point defeat cost the team loads of pride and confidence.
So the next game really was a ‘must' for the Bulldogs. "It was very important for us to win," guard Dietric Slater agreed. They did, and thanks to the luck of SEC scheduling everybody has an open midweek to recover from unexpected setbacks and recharge for the rest of the season.
"I think it's coming at a good time," Stansbury said Monday morning, "just giving us a chance to work a little more on different lineups. We're trying to mix and match right now, so we'll take the practice time and rest when we need to." State plays next on Saturday afternoon at LSU (2:00, Jefferson-Pilot regional telecast).
Of course this and practically every ensuing game is a must-win situation if the Bulldogs are to win a third-straight West title, much less defend their 2004 SEC Championship. It is a bit startling to realize that three weeks into this SEC season State has lost as many league games as all of last year. But then this is a new year and a very different one…especially now that MSU is playing without Winsome Frazier.
Since the starting two-guard broke a foot bone at Mississippi on January 8, his teammates have split four league games with home wins over Arkansas and South Carolina and losses at Tennessee (by a point) and Alabama. Regarding Frazier, there have been some encouraging signs that the recovery is on-schedule. "They re-evaluated him last week and the doctor said the way it's looking hopefully maybe in four weeks he'll be back," Stansbury said. The standard prognosis is a six-week period, and the operation took place January 10 with the cast on the left foot to come off maybe this week.
In the extreme best-case, Frazier could be back as early as the Kentucky or Georgia road games. But realistically the State staff can't make plans for games that far off. There are equally-important contests to play right now with the available Bulldogs. "If that works out it will be great," Stansbury said, "but we have to continue to prepare just like we are now and keep finding ways to get better."
That was the real concept behind State's plans for South Carolina; not just to survive and defend the home court, as vital as that is. The goal was to improve despite playing short a senior starter, top outside shooter and ace man-on-man defender. And, to shake off the humiliating hangover from Tuscaloosa.
"We didn't want to wake up Wednesday," Slater said, "we wanted to sleep all day. It was tough. Especially the football team, we don't know why they'd do that! But we'll get them back."
Actually the Bulldogs are far less interested in campus bragging rights than SEC status. The Alabama loss did linger into the opening minutes against South Carolina as State was erratic and frustrated. "We had to calm down," senior forward Ontario Harper said, "We were more emotional than anything, in the back of our minds we were thinking about the Alabama game." But the Dogs settled down, took care of the Gamecocks, and got a necessary victory.
"We didn't get down, it was totally different than last game," said Slater. "As far as the rest of the season I think we'll look forward to playing the way we did (in the second half against USC)."
"If you dwell on it, you'll stay there and you won't progress as a team," senior center Marcus Campbell said. "We put that one behind us and said we'd step up as a team and take care of business."
The business now at hand is settling into another new way of planning games. For three games Stansbury promoted junior guard Jamall Edmondson to Frazier's position, for a starting lineup with the most offensive potential. State did blow out Arkansas but managed just 63 and 49 points in league road losses, and in the three games the Dogs were 6-of-37 on three-point shooting. Team defense suffered sa well, especially on the perimeter with a serious height mismatch.
Stansbury tried a new approach for the USC game. Or maybe, an old-er approach with an all-veteran lineup. Wingman Shane Power moved up to off-guard and Harper got his first start since 2002-03 at small forward. "I made the decision to get my most experience and toughness on the floor to start the game," the coach said. "That's the reason we went with Harper, and his experience and toughness showed."
It did with better defense and rebounding. But the change also let Edmondson relax. "He's more experienced than me," the juco transfer said, "that's probably the best move for the team. It helped me watching the pace of the game." And a fresh Edmondson not only stuck a pair of crucial three-pointers in the decisive second half, he played by far his best man-defense (with five steals) and even handled the ball under pressure with some forced minutes at point guard.
"The lineup worked, and we'll stick with it," Stansbury said. "But again, it's my most experienced players and my toughest players."
This whole team has to play tough ball for State to keep winning. The Bulldogs can count on double-figure points and rebounds from power forward Lawrence Roberts, who despite sitting eight tense minutes with foul trouble managed 17 points and 12 boards. Stansbury liked how vets Harper and Power performed in adjusted roles. "That was their best floor game," he noted. "I was pleased to see Shane start the game looking to shoot. And Harper just gives great experience and the ability to rebound. It was obvious we were better defensively."
Campbell also continued to show a more intense, aggressive game with 11 points and 10 rebounds, his third double-double and a very well-timed one at that. Stansbury praised the seven-foot senior for playing through fatigue, as he had been sick the two preceeding days and was not full-strength at all.
But if the coach is shuffling veterans, the USC game hinted at how he sees some younger Dogs now. With Roberts benched for fouls and Campbell needing a break, junior Wesley Morgan was put in the post instead of freshman Walter Sharpe. "I wanted my experience out there," was all Stansbury would say, though in pre-game warm-ups Sharpe was chastised by an assistant coach for joking around with a fellow redshirting rookie. Sharpe got a dozen minutes off the bench at Alabama.
That does not mean Sharpe won't be called on again, and soon. Stansbury is not locked into any lineup or rotation, saying again Monday morning that with Frazier out there will be plenty of mixing-and-matching for specific situations. That is why this open date is coming at a very beneficial juncture; for USC, the staff did not have much time to hone another starting lineup. A whole free week now is priceless. "It's a big concern when you're changing a lot of roles this time of year," said Stansbury, noting Power was trying to play zone defense from a new position and Harper hadn't started in over a year.
"We'll use the time to get more familiar with each other's situations and work on some things with personnel," he said Monday morning. "In the past I used (an open date) as a scrimmage day to keep it consistent with playing, I don't know if I'll do that this time.
"Hopefully this week will give us an opportunity to do more things. And offensively we're changing and doing some things. We can't do a lot of things new this time of year, but we have to get better and this week will give us a chance to work on some things."
Which is why the Bulldogs don't mind that they are not getting a break during an open date. Nor are they bothered by interrupting the schedule this early in SEC season. "It's OK," said Slater. "We probably need practice more than we need games."