Worried? It could give Bully himself an anxiety attack. Certainly Mississippi State folk are increasingly uneasy with how the first month of conference season is playing out, with the two-time Western Division champions sliding to the third rung on the loop ladder after a 69-62 loss at Louisiana State. Now 4-3, the Bulldogs are a half-game behind LSU with 6-1 Alabama stretching their lead on both. And after three consecutive road losses, there is even some sense of urgency that 16-5 State needs to pick up the pace or their presumed place in the NCAA Tournament could still slip away.
This is the sort of out-of-control situation even Stansbury can worry over. Only, the coach has to do it such a way that doesn't inspire unease among the troops. Because there is a whole lot of basketball to be played this regular season.
"What we have is what we have," Stansbury said. "We've got to find ways to get tougher, execute better down the stretch, to give us a chance to win."
State's next chance to prove this team can play tough, come through in the clutch, and win again comes Tuesday evening on the homecourt. Florida visits Humphrey Coliseum for a 7:00 shootout on ESPN2, and the Gators come to town on a roll. They have just posted consecutive East Division wins over Georgia and South Carolina, and won five of their last six contests. And, Florida is back to strength with the return of guard Matt Walsh from an early-January injury.
Stansbury would love to be able to say the same, either about the recent record (the Bulldogs have lost three of their last five games) or roster (all five were played since guard Winsome Frazier broke a bone in his left foot January 8). Frazier won't be back for this game or any sooner than the third weekend of February, though he did get the cast off last Tuesday and is ahead of expected recovery schedule.
But for the time being the Bulldogs have to play with the available lineup against scheduled opposition. More to the point, State needs to win this next game just because it is the next game. "You don't worry about things you have no choice on," shrugs Stansbury, who might or might not want to hear that State has not lost consecutive games since two Februarys ago.
Of course until this January the Bulldogs prided themselves upon the title of ‘road warriors,' an appellation earned by consistent success away from home for almost two combined seasons. But since Frazier cracked a foot at Oxford the road warriors have become road worriers with close losses at Tennessee and LSU around a blowout at Alabama. This is no coincidence, Stansbury agrees.
"It's very simple. That road streak was made of the toughness of (2004 seniors) Timmy Bowers and Branden Vincent. We lost those guys. And the next toughest guy was Winsome Frazier." Not to mention this team's top outside shooter and best individual defender, things the squad is missing. Stansbury has shuffled the lineup a couple of times since then, and while the Dogs have scored two homecourt wins the three road trips have been letdowns.
"Now for us to go on the road and win we have to have guys do some things they haven't done and probably in their personalities are not able to do," Stansbury said.
The statement wasn't necessarily meant to criticize, just to state a hard fact that the coach does not see the same intangibles that were trademarks of the SEC Champions. Even one of the veterans of that club, senior forward Lawrence Roberts, was thinking along similar lines after the loss at LSU, when asked why this team is suddenly struggling on the SEC road. "It's just one of those things," the All-American said. "We haven't been approaching it as well as last year. We didn't come out as focused as we did last year."
Yet Stansbury also saw some encouraging signs at Baton Rouge, despite the final score. He said the Bulldogs, down by a dozen midway of the last half, showed some toughness and willingness to keep scrapping. "I'm proud of the way our kids hung in there and fought on the road," he said. True, until recently that sort of attitude was taken for granted at State. But any progress is welcome.
Toughness can be taught, or at least caught. The more tangible elements remain the same, however, and until Frazier's return this is the roster State plays with. The question going into February is what can be done with starters and substitutes to keep the best lineup on the court game-by-game. And it very much will be a game-by-game process as Stansbury mixes and matches whenever possible.
After the outcome at LSU, the matchups with Florida—especially with Walsh's return—would seem to demand some tweaking. The Gators are, as usual, a bunch of bombers from the three-point line, and with versatile David Lee working inside/out. It is the SEC's top-scoring squad. Again.
And perimeter defense is suddenly a very sore point for State, after LSU's Darrel Mitchell burned the Dogs for 20 points on both outside shooting and dribble-penetration. The Tigers took advantage of a forced defensive compromise MSU made by moving swingman Shane Power to off-guard so Ontario Harper could start at small forward. This is State's most physical and most experienced lineup, but it naturally gives up quickness in covering the arc. Florida, and then Saturday opponent Auburn, are sure to notice.
Stansbury is not dead-set against another lineup change, such as returning Jamall Edmondson to two-guard and bringing Harper off the bench. And actually, he sounds more concerned now about State's own issues with outside offense. Other than a 6-of-17 afternoon at home against South Carolina, the Bulldogs have made just four treys in 33 tries in the last three games.
The lack of perimeter punch has made life harder for Roberts as defenders swarm him the instant the ball is tossed into the lane. "LSU just challenged us to swing the ball and have somebody else make some shots or drive the ball," he said, the frustration obvious. Stansbury shares the feeling.
"You have to shoot the ball from the perimeter some," he said. "You have to make some shots on the road to win, not a bunch of them, but some. You can't go on the road and grind it out in the paint with people doubling you all night long and not be able to make some three-point shots."
But…who will make those shots? Or for that matter, take them? "You don't want bad shooters taking good shots," Stansbury said. "And we all know we don't shoot it well from the perimeter with the lineup we're going with, that's just the facts. Shane is our best shooter, he's the one guy that needs to shoot more, but again guys close on him very quickly. He's got to be quick to get that shot off."
At LSU the need to get the ball off quickly produced two semi-comic turnovers; as Power went into a shooting motion before he had caught the ball, and Dietric Slater had the ball slip out of his hands and behind him as he went up for a jumper. The pressure is showing, in other words, but the fact remains that with Frazier out State has no true ‘jump' shooter in the regular rotation. Power and Edmondson have to be open to take long shots. Only reserve Michael Boler has any untapped perimeter potential on this roster and it is rare for Stansbury to mix in a new face this late into a season.
But he is again willing to give freshman center Walter Sharpe more opportunities, even if nobody knows when those games are. At LSU the rookie was finally used in a truly competitive SEC situation, and Sharpe came through with some second-half baskets. "That's the first time I've felt comfortable," he said. "You hit a couple of shots and the game starts coming to you."
It's been a long time coming for Stansbury, who has had his difficulties with Sharpe this first year together. "I've been saying all along Walter can help us. No one else has seen it because he hasn't taken care of details off the court. I think everybody got a glimpse of what his abilities are." Offensively, that is; Sharpe is still out of his rookie-depth on defense and forgets to box out on the boards. But he knows those things.
"Hopefully next game I'll come out and play better. "Coach said there's nothing wrong with my offense."
And with an uncertain perimeter game, the Bulldogs might become even more post-oriented. An aggressive and able Sharpe could compliment Roberts very well on offense. The obvious downside is giving up bulk and boards, though the duo held their own against LSU's big bodies for a while. Either way, Stansbury and staff are making some hard choices these days and their just is no one answer or lineup that will work every play of every game.
Not only that, but State has much less margin for errors in the form of turnovers. Because of how teams are going to defend the Dogs now, point guard Gary Ervin must consistently force the action and at times that is going to result in mistakes and look like reckless play. It isn't. And Stansbury can live with some do-or-die plays the soph triggerman attempts, as these actually have a better chance of success against certain defenses than set-up plays. Especially against zones.
At the same time…"You can't have bad possessions down the stretch when you're behind," Stansbury said. "We had three turnovers in a row (at LSU) when it was a two- or three-point game. You just cannot have those on the road and win."
Yet the bottom line is this team is going to make mistakes because, for now, it does not have all the parts to fit all situations. There will inevitably be some awkward lineups on the court out of sheer necessity. The trick is finding the right balance of experience, quickness, and size as often as possible so that Mississippi State can—hopefully—win both on the road again and keep defending the home court.
"There's a balance in there," Stansbury said. "That's a challenge for this team, to take the next step, and we're trying to do it without our toughest guy. And again, we're not making excuses for that."
Because in the Southeastern Conference, nobody worries about excuses. Just the scores and standings.