Thus the Bulldog coach doesn't have any problems with taking a few days off to hopefully figure out how to get Mississippi State off their current rut and back on a faster track for the rest of the regular season. "It probably comes at a good time," Stansbury said Monday morning about a midweek open date. "In the past we didn't like off-weeks because we had a pretty good rhythm. But I don't think it hurts this team to change routine and rhythm some."
Indeed, State has gotten stuck in a cycle that some SEC programs might welcome but the Bulldogs find uncomfortable. Though still a game better than break-even in the league, and 17-6 overall, things are not playing out as well as expected. Since dropping a couple of rungs down the Division ladder this MSU team has failed to make up any lost ground. Last Saturday was a perfect opportunity, as both Alabama and LSU dropped road games.
But by then the Bulldogs had already been stunned 90-76 at Auburn, meaning MSU did not take advantage of the leader's losses. Now they have seven SEC games left and need help just to catch up with the pair in front, much less defend their Division title.
Before that, though, the Bulldogs take their Wednesday break. The next action is Saturday evening against Vanderbilt, followed by a visit from LSU on February 16. Stansbury intends to make use of the extra preparation time, but not to overwork his somewhat-shaken squad. "We'll rest again, we'll take and extra day off this week. We've got to find a way mentally to do some things that we do at home. That's the difference with this team, at home we've been pretty good but we don't have the mental approach to go on the road and do things."
That points to something else predictable about this W/L cycle: the wins have come at home, and every loss on the road. It's a total turnaround from the form showed by last year's SEC Champions, who earned fame and a name—the ‘Road Warriors'—by sweeping their away schedule. This 2005 conference campaign has been almost completely contrary. Since beating Mississippi 87-76 in Oxford on January 8 the Bulldogs have been shut out on the SEC road. They've lost both to contending teams—at Alabama and LSU—and been upset by backmarkers Tennessee and Auburn.
"We're not the same team," Stansbury said after the most recent setback, when Auburn scorched State with outside shooting in a romp that was never close after the opening ten minutes. The coach actually suspected a struggle against the Tigers, despite a 90-53 win in Starkville when the teams first met. What happened was beyond Stansbury's worst expectations.
"We got no stops," he said, as the Dogs lost matchups in man-defense and didn't cover in zone. "We were a step slow. We got no transition baskets, we weren't very good at either end."
Yet four evenings earlier State was excellent at each end of the home court in whipping Florida. After a tough, close loss at LSU it looked as if the Dogs had made a big step back in the right direction. "I thought we played with unbelievable effort," the coach said. Yet this was followed by a somewhat-unbelievable loss at lowly Auburn.
And the worst aspect to the setback wasn't just the ‘L' but how easily the Dogs appeared to handle it. That really bothers Stansbury, who said this team has to re-discover an old attitude. "Those things have to hurt more than the pleasure of winning," he said. "It's got to hurt to lose."
Hurt and frustration is becoming obvious in some quarters. After the lost comments by senior Shane Power, regarding a lack of total-team efforts in practices and games, quickly circulated. It wasn't the kind of internal exposure most coaches would care for at any point of a season, much less here in the middle of a conference campaign. Yet Monday morning Stansbury had no problems with Power's statements.
"I don't mind that," he said. "It's the truth. I thought against Florida we played with great toughness, and at Auburn we didn't have the same approach. You can't have five, six, seven (players) doing it, you've got to have everybody doing it. You can't fragment on the road."
Yet lately the Bulldogs have fallen apart away from home. "We don't have that toughness, offensively and defensively," Stansbury said. That hurts as much as the actual loss because for the past three seasons State teams have earned a reputation for playing as tough for as long as any opponent and more than most. This is how MSU has earned three-straight NCAA bids and won various SEC championships in 2002, '03, and '04.
A title in 2005 is looking much less certain now. And even with 17 wins and a respectable schedule rating, the Bulldogs can't entirely take a postseason bid for granted. The NCAA berth is still theirs to lose, of course; but at the moment this team shows disturbing signs that they could yet lose it in a worst-case scenario. That case is made all the worse by a national impression of the Southeastern Conference's stature this year.
Stansbury disputes critics of the conference. "Is our league as good as it has been? Probably not," he agreed. "But we've been a dominating league. It doesn't mean we're not still good, and 1-through-12 we're the best league in the country, maybe not 1-through-4 this year but 1-through-12 we've remained the best."
And even at 5-4 the Bulldogs have to be considered one of the four or five best teams in a quality league. The remaining schedule also offers plenty opportunities for State to earn a first-day bye at the SEC Tournament, which would erase any questions of NCAA worthiness. But there is also a lot less room for error the rest of the way.
"We have to take care of this home court," Stansbury said, "and mentally we've got to recover from Saturday's loss and get better."
Observers recognize that the up-and-down, home-and-away cycle began when senior guard Winsome Frazier broke a foot-bone in that road win at Mississippi. At times Stansbury has believed the team was adapting at last to Frazier's absence. "I thought mentally we'd made the move without him, we changed lineups and beat South Carolina and played well against LSU and beat Florida.
"I thought we'd made the adjustment, not that we can replace some things he brought. Saturday we got exposed again in some areas. But that's the way it is, we can't use him as an excuse." The Bulldogs can hope to see Frazier back on the active roster later this month though. Monday was the first day he was to be allowed to get on the court and start shooting the ball, while continuing other conditioning-rehab work on the stationary bike and in the wading pool.
As to the projected date of return, "I don't know for sure," Stansbury said. "It will be a week, ten-day process and after that he'll get re-evaluated next week. But we're probably a couple of weeks away."
Until then the Bulldogs will play with the same roster that has defended the home court and offended on the road. Senior forward/center Lawrence Roberts continues to average a double-double, and last week was listed on the 30 finalists for the Wooden Player of the Year award. Power has tried to pick up Frazier's scoring slack and in the last two games State has figured more ways to get him the ball in open-shot spots. Point guard Gary Ervin might frustrate fans but his assist/turnover rate remains positive and the soph creates scoring as many scoring opportunities as possible for himself while—necessarily—forcing the pace.
Stansbury is more concerned by the defense, or too often now the lack of it. Auburn's afternoon was the exception but it remains fact that foes will try to light State up from outside as often as possible with Frazier not available to defend the perimeter. There isn't much the staff can do about that for now, and they have found what looks like the best rotation of shooter Jamall Edmondson and defender Dietric Slater in backcourt relief. Post play is another issue. At Auburn, starting center Marcus Campbell played a handful of minutes before sitting the balance of the day. "It was a coach's decision," was all Stansbury would say Monday. "It was a combination of things, I didn't explain it to him, it was just my decision."
Rookie center Walter Sharpe has been getting more minutes and producing more numbers lately, and his quickness is an offensive advantage. Yet Campbell still can play better defense inside, and it can't be ignored that when the 7-0 senior scores double-digits and rebounds well the Bulldogs win. Period. So Stansbury is not writing off the veteran at all, while still figuring on giving Sharpe more opportunities.
Those chances presumably will be easier to find in the next two home games. And the Bulldogs have every reason to be confident after winning nine times at The Hump already this year. But the way the SEC is playing out this year, homecourt winning is essentially a baseline to start from. Titles and bids are earned away from home.
Stansbury is thinking along those lines, too. "We have to find a way to go on the road and win," he said. After, of course, taking care of business at home.