Monday Basketball Update

No, there isn't much turnaround-time before Mississippi State takes on Florida in an inter-Division shootout at Humphrey Coliseum. But even extra days of preparation would not diminish the challenge Coach Rick Stansbury expects Tuesday night on the homecourt.

"We know Florida is an excellent team," the Bulldog coach said in the SEC's Monday teleconference. And the Gators (13-4, 5-1 SEC) are playing that way lately, having dominated their last two league contests and winning five of the last six games. A day breaking down Florida films only raises Stansbury's opinion of Tuesday's visitors.

"They've got one of the best scorers, not just in this league but in the country, in Anthony Roberson, and Matt Walsh is back now." The latter's return from a minor injury means the Gator backcourt is all the way to full-strength as well, with a pair of potent scorers leading the SEC's best perimeter offense.

At the same time, Stansbury sees more from this Florida team than the shooters. "I really think the difference has been the inside kids, (forward David Lee and rookie postman Al Horford), they can really score around the hole. We're glad we're back at home. That doesn't make it any easier but we're rather play them here than in Gainesville."

Some Gator veterans might question that, since it was a year ago the Bulldogs stunned Florida and a national TV audience with a 79-68 upset in the O'Connell Center. But the MSU coach knows what he is talking about. After three-straight SEC road losses, the last two days ago at Louisiana State, the Dogs need to put the home court to good use and start February on a winning note.

Yet to beat any SEC foe, much less one of Florida's talents Mississippi State has to play their best game to-date. Certainly they have to perform better than in a 69-62 loss at Baton Rouge. Stansbury expected some problems as State adjusted to the absence of two-guard Winsome Frazier. But the difficulties have been more problematic than any Dog hoped, and the coach is still looking for the right set of lineup combinations to plan a game around.

Monday morning did not reveal any starting changes for Florida. Nor is Stansbury ruling out that possibility, either, though for now he still seems inclined to stick with his most experienced and most physical starting five. That means keeping swingman Shane Power at two-guard and starting small forward Ontario Harper. At the same time, Stansbury stressed how a lack of backcourt defensive quickness hurt State at LSU…and the coach did not have to add that Florida is even more proficient from the perimeter.

So whoever starts at two and three, frequent substitutions are likely. Even if, inevitably, this makes it all the harder to develop squad cohesion. LSU was exhibit-A. "Naturally when you're changing the roles of people like Shane and Harper and playing a young guy (guard Dietric Slater), you don't execute as well at home or on the road as you're used to," Stansbury said. "The margin for error is zero." Only, the Bulldogs made crunch-time errors in go-ahead situations.

That is one concern for State's staff. Another is giving Lawrence Roberts more room to work in the lane. The senior forward/center has gotten used to having two defenders hanging and even banging him around the paint, and while Roberts is still scoring points the baskets are coming much harder. And Stansbury says even with an All-American in the post, this team cannot be totally inside-oriented.

"I don't care how many times you throw it inside, you've got to be able to make some shots. It's tough to expect every possession to get something done inside." That is a direct challenge to a Bulldog backcourt that is struggling to make jumpshots in general and three-pointers in particular.

"The one thing (to beat a double-team) is knock down shots. And it's something we haven't done real well lately. There's not a whole lot of secrets to making shots, either, it's good shooters taking bad shots or not shooting it very well. And we're not shooting it well. We've got to loosen it up on Lawrence inside."

But if State's guards can't loosen up the interior, Stansbury might have to change lineups and go with the most inside-offensive punch he can find. That would mean a greater role for freshman center Walter Sharpe, who had a breakout day of sorts at LSU. The coach, who has openly criticized the rookie for not taking care of off-court business, said Sharpe is getting with the program at last.

"It's nothing major, it's little things. Doing something right is the difference between winning and losing. His biggest problem like a lot of kids is taking care of details. Walter has made progress, that's why he's able to get on the court now." And while Sharpe is still nowhere near being a reliable defensive player, his offensive talents might be more in demand these days. Such as this past Saturday. "I thought his skill level helped create some things for other players," Stansbury said.

By the same token Stansbury made it clear State continues to look to senior center Marcus Campbell first, and that the veteran has handled things well. "When he plays well our team is much better. But he has been more consistent lately." At least Campbell was for a half at LSU; in the second period his rebounding fell off, and Sharpe's scoring potential was needed. "Offensively Walter gave us something in there," Stansbury said.

The coach also gave an update, of sorts, on Frazier, who has at least three weeks left in recovery from January 10 surgery. "There's not a whole lot of change since last week, he got the cast off and is in a boot and he's doing bike stuff now. His real rehab starts today, in the pool. He's made great progress and right now we don't see any setbacks."

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