Second, this is when a whole lot of squads that came into the month still thinking (to varying degrees) of securing NCAA status before conference tourney-time have most or all hope dashed. Call it February Frenzy, or something. By any name things are about to get pretty darn frantic here in the SEC.
It definitely felt that way yesterday evening in Humphrey Coliseum, when the Bulldogs saw a 14-point lead vanish in the time it took Vanderbilt to throw up a bunch of threes. Happily State steadied, stuck to the most productive gameplan (get to the foul line), and when the Commys finally missed a few the Dogs grabbed each rebound that mattered.
By the way, there might be some younger readers who don't quite get why I made so much of State's free throws. Others gripe about MSU shooting just 24-of-42 at the stripe. Well, maybe it's just another sign that I'm getting o-l-d. But this grizzled Dog follower has spent too many years watching guys in black-and-gold parade to the line as Bulldogs fouled out. (I also had to explain this to young Ian R. of the Clarion Ledger, but he's a New Yorker and excused for not knowing MSU/SEC history.) So please tolerate a bit of "about @#$% time" attitude from me and others of my generation, OK?
Anyway, what mattered almost as much as getting that win was how the Dogs did it, even if they sorta contributed to the late-game tension by losing some outside shooters. They made the plays that absolutely had to be made, at do-or-die times, and kept a capable VU team from stealing one State just about had to have to stay in the West race. More on this in a moment.
"To our kids' credit again we found a way to dig in the last three minutes of the game," Rick Stansbury said. "I thought we turned it up to another level." A level that State has had trouble getting to at times this SEC season. Sure, Auburn got no-conscience-hot last week. And yeah, at Tennessee the Dogs were shaky after the loss of Winsome Frazier. But either or both of those road setbacks would come in quite handy right now translated to the ‘W' column.
A better comparison is the loss at LSU, where if State makes late-game plays similar to last night the outcome would have been better. And, the Bulldogs would right now sit alone at second in the West and only a game out of the penthouse. But what's done is done, and MSU can take both even the score and take a lead on the Tigers this Wednesday. Making up much ground on Alabama, now, that's another matter for March.
(Speaking of which, y'all who have tickets for March 5 but don't plan to come…please, be real careful who you sell/give those ducats to, hey? Just a cautionary thought.)
Back to immediate business. Whatever one thought of the way the game developed, that win was still a pretty good way of shaking off the post-Auburn blues. And yes, the Dogs knew LSU had lost earlier. "That was a little bit of a motivator," guard Shane Power agreed. Yet talking to State players it was obvious they brought their own built-in motivations to get this season back on the right track.
And talk about intensity…the look on Lawrence Roberts' face as the game developed said it all. The big Dog got tired of taking a low-post beating and made a serious statement in the second half. Again, it wasn't pretty but it was awfully effective, the way Roberts took the fight back at Vanderbilt and all but took over the game. "You can't keep him down for an entire game," said an admiring Power afterwards, "I haven't seen it done yet."
"We just wanted to buckle down and concentrate," Roberts said. "We had to stay aggressive." He surely did, notching one of the toughest ‘double-doubles' of his career. Maybe one of the most impressive under the circumstances, even if critics quibble about shooting percentages. To my mind Roberts is have a stronger senior season than his SEC POTY junior year, because the big guy is taking a literal and metaphorical beating every gamenight and still producing under incredible pressure.
Roberts is also honest. Responding to a question from your's truly about how this win helped put the Auburn memory behind, Roberts agreed at first, then qualified…"But on the other hand we haven't had trouble at home. It's away that we worry about." Now that's candor of the best kind. And he's not alone; these seniors have a habit of telling it as it is even if ‘it' means criticizing themselves and the team as a whole. I know, some fans want 100%-positive talk 100% of the time…but all should respect the fact that this club, certainly these veterans, don't gloss over problems or situations.
And while 18-6, 6-4 SEC is hardly a serious ‘problem' the situation could still be better in title-terms. Besides, these guys were used to winning road games; the four defeats have taken a toll on collective confidence even if they better than any understand just what is missing with #23 sitting on the bench the past month. There is good news on that issue; early arrivals at The Hump got to see Frazier warming up with his healthy teammates, taking—and generally making—jumpshots. Long jumpshots. Three-point jumpshots. Lovely, arching, twine-tickling treys. He didn't make any defensive moves, but…
"He's been looking good the last couple of days," reported Power, who has tried his best to fill some of the void in Frazier's absence. "I'm teasing him that he's getting too much shooting in! But if anyone had to have that injury he's probably the best one to rehab from it." Frazier has done as much as the training staff will allow and probably more if truth be known. He's in a hurry.
Stansbury is downplaying things, much as he did right after the injury when saying Frazier was done for the year. He knew better, but didn't want to inflate hopes too soon. Now? "He was able to do a little the last couple of days, hopefully he'll do more next week," the coach said. "How soon, we don't know. It's at least a week to ten days." Or, conceivably, less.
Whatever the timetable, State will play LSU a second time without Frazier. We toss ‘showdown' around pretty freely but this game fits that description. Both are 6-4 SEC and by Wednesday night one State University will have the West's second rung all to their own…as well as a major leg-up in the race to have a Thursday bye in Atlanta. To that end the game means more to MSU because the Dogs need to split the season series.
But now let's look at a larger picture. In NCAA bid terms, this game actually might have greater import for a LSU team that, while tied with State in the conference, is already a step or two behind in the perceived postseason pecking order. The Tigers are in trouble after damaging losses at Tennessee and Arkansas. Given their weak pre-SEC slate and losses to Houston and Southern Miss (still a puzzler) LSU really has to think in terms of finishing second in the West or missing out on March madness another year. Beating State is almost a must now, as it would at least offer a tiebreaker when Atlanta seedings are settled.
Talking to folk with different angles on the postseason picture, the consensus (admittedly optimistic) is that national doomsayers predicting just four SEC teams earning NCAA berths are off by at least one. By the same token, though, five bids are not assured this year. Fair or not, all the ‘expert' criticism of the league as being in a down year really might factor into selection decisions. And honesty requires pointing out that the SEC hasn't had a great record against ranked outside opposition.
So, for now anyway, the first goal for Mississippi State is to finish among the other (perceived) bid locks of Kentucky, Florida, and Alabama. Then as a result the Dogs can think about battling the Tide to the wire for the West title, while LSU, Vanderbilt, and maybe South Carolina and improving Arkansas scramble for a fifth-finish overall. I think the Gamecocks are cooked after losing at home to Auburn, as their remaining slate is toughest. Arkansas has a lot of ground that can be made up only by stealing a road win or two. Vandy is done with Kentucky and has a fighting chance, but LSU might be in the best position of the foursome.
The Bulldogs are in even better shape, to my mind. Think of it this way: State has a NCAA bid to lose, while LSU, et.al. will have to win theirs. But with six league games left, and you can be sure Stansbury is stressing the same theme, the Dogs still could lose that bid. That's not negative thinking, that's extra motivation to keep State sharp.
So is another home game. Roberts & Co. have no need to worry about their next road trips, to Kentucky and Georgia, until after Wednesday night. They may have lost the ‘road warrior' status but the Bulldogs can still maintain their inhospitable reputation at The Hump by beating the Bengals this week.