Bulldogs Need To Regain Road Warrior Status

It sounds strange, considering the program's record in the past couple of seasons. But the way Rick Stansbury sees the situation, if Mississippi State is to contend for another championship this year the Bulldogs must re-discover a skill they had begun to take for granted—winning on the SEC road.

"That's what separates the good teams from the great teams," the coach said Thursday, as Mississippi State prepares to hit the league-road for the weekend . "That's our next step."

The very next stride along this SEC schedule sends the Bulldogs to Baton Rouge, for a Saturday matchup with Louisiana State. The 2:00 game at the Maravich Assembly Center will be telecast by Jefferson-Pilot Sports. And to say the least Stansbury hopes that the regional TV audience witnesses State's next SEC road success of 2005.

The Bulldogs (16-4 overall, 4-2 SEC) have come up short in their two previous conference road trips. Or more accurately, short in a one-point setback at Tennessee. At Alabama the scoreboard showed a whopping 49-point imbalance, straining the limits of a Stansbury dictum that margins are meaningless and only the record matters.

Yet even the coach will admit that a ‘W' scored away from home means just a little something extra. "Any time you can win on the road it's sweet in this league. You don't see it happening a whole lot. Last year we did some things that may not be done again, it's not easily done."

Indeed, the 8-0 record posted last season by the now-legendary MSU ‘Road Warriors' on hostile SEC courts wasn't easily accomplished. But the marvelous dimensions of that feat have become even clearer in light of the current struggles, with State 1-2 on the league road (the win was at Mississippi). These two January losses snapped an overall road-court record of 16 wins dating back to March, 2003.

Of course Stansbury is not concerned with streaks any more, unless it is starting another one. He also knows, as does the rest of the league, the biggest reason the Bulldogs have been beaten on consecutive road trips. "Partly it's the situation we're in now," he said, referring to injured senior guard Winsome Frazier, who broke a foot-bone on January 8 at Oxford.

Coach and club accepted that the loss of State's leading outside shooter and best man-on-man defender would hamper this team. Just how great the impact would be is now obvious to fan and foe alike. Stansbury did have a promising progress report Thursday. "Winsome got his cast off Tuesday, he started his rehab. We'll see how that goes now, I think it will be important to see if and when we can get him back."

In fact Frazier now is expected back by the end of February, if not sooner. But until then the healthy Bulldogs have to play more SEC games…more to the point, that they can win a road game. Stansbury is walking a fine psychological line in dealing with the situation, how to make things clear without dwelling on the downside.

"We address it every day, about working hard enough and doing things well enough to win on the road. They understand this team without Frazier hasn't won the road. That's something we talk about but we don't overemphasize it."

He doesn't have to, to the team at least. The split-results of the last four games, with two road losses and homecourt wins over Arkansas and South Carolina, are clear enough. But Stansbury says some effects aren't as obvious, such as how point guard Gary Ervin's game has been impacted. The sophomore was making the adjustment from rookie backup to full-time starter well. "I thought he had really turned a corner, until we lost Frazier," Stansbury said. "The eight previous games he had 39 assists and 13 turnovers; since we lost Frazier it's gone back to 11 assists and 16 turnovers. It's changed his whole role, probably a lot of his mistakes are magnified because of the responsibility on him now."

In the last game, before the Bulldogs took their midweek break, State's staff shuffled the starting lineup. After starting junior Jamall Edmondson three games at off-guard, senior wingman Shane Power moved to two and senior Ontario Harper was inserted into the tipoff team at three. This lineup, and the adjusted rotation, produced a tough win over South Carolina made all the harder by foul trouble to leading scorer/rebounder Lawrence Roberts. The senior paces the SEC on the boards and is second in points.

Starting Harper means a more physical lineup, but also gives up some backcourt quickness. It's a tradeoff Stansbury finds necessary given the available roster for now. "What (Harper) is still able to do is give you the experience and understanding of what it takes out there. He's won a lot of games and that's why I made a decision to get my most experienced players on the floor, no matter what roles it changes. We've got to see if we can go on the road and do that now."

‘That' being win. It's a difficult enough proposition for a full-strength team; the short-handed Bulldogs have an even more serious challenge in Saturday's matchup, regardless of what the current records indicate. The host Tigers are 10-6 overall and now 3-2 SEC after rallying past Mississippi 70-60 at home Wednesday night. It was a win LSU needed to remain in Western Division contention, as well sustain postseason hopes that have taken unexpected hits.

The Tigers suffered non-conference setbacks to Southern Mississippi and Houston, among others, and now a couple of early league losses leave little room for error in terms of earning a first-day bye at the SEC Tournament. So Stansbury recognizes just how intensely the home team will approach this visit from their Division rivals.

"We know it will be a very difficult game. LSU is very talented, with four starters returning from last year. And the player they brought in (freshman Glen Davis) has had as much impact as any player in the league. They've got size and strength around the hole, and great experiences in (Darrel) Mitchell and (Antonio) Hudson. And (Tack) Minor can really go score the ball. It will be a difficult game for us."

The 6-9, 310-pound (or so) Davis has had a sizable impact this rookie year, averaging over 20 points in the five SEC games and teaming with soph Brandon Bass for a big-league front line. Conventional wisdom is that the freshman center is best defended by a tall, long-armed postman, and State has seven footers Marcus Campbell and Wesley Morgan available. But Stansbury is not buying into the C.W.

"Arkansas had a 7-0 guy and a 6-10 guy, and he still had 26 points and ten rebounds. We know we'll have our hands full."

The Bulldogs have also had an extra day or two to smooth out kinks in the new starting lineup, as well as prepare for the next game. It's a key contest for both clubs, an a victory in this situation would be exactly what Mississippi State needs as they drive deeper into SEC season.

"We're trying to make the adjustment," Stansbury said. "We've good enough to win at home, but win on the road, that's our next step now."


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