Bulldogs, Bengals Battle For Second In West

Rick Stansbury can be so focused on preparing for and playing the schedule one game at a time that he often forgets upcoming games. Thus it took a sportswriter's query to point out to the Bulldog coach that this Wednesday's game with visiting Louisiana State concludes the only back-to-back home dates on State's SEC slate this season.

"Truthfully, I hadn't thought about it," Stansbury said during the Monday morning press teleconference. "It is kind of odd now that you draw my attention to it. But, we're happy for it."

Happy, not because there won't be any more consecutive home dates; but just because the Bulldogs get to play the Bengals on the home court in a crucial Western Division showdown. Mississippi State is 18-6 after Saturday's homecourt win over Vanderbilt, which boosted their SEC record to 6-4…the same as LSU, which is coming off a narrow loss at Arkansas. The weekend's results jammed State and LSU into a tie for second in the Division.

Thus even the one-at-a-time coach will admit—sort of--that this game has more import than most in the regular season. "It's big naturally because of that. But this time of the year they all get big, no matter if you're playing a team right with you or another team. But naturally because we're both right there, 6-4, it takes on a little extra meaning."

There is some irony as well, since it was a 69-62 loss at Baton Rouge three weeks ago that knocked State off the second rung of the loop ladder. More obviously there are major implications for both teams in how this rematch plays out. The winner takes a big second-half step ahead in terms of securing a first-day bye at the SEC Tournament, as well as scoring priceless points with the NCAA Tournament selectors.

From that aspect the teams may be tied, SEC-wise, but Mississippi State is clearly in better postseason position overall. The Tigers (13-8 overall after setbacks at Tennessee and Arkansas) are far less secure and might have to finish second in the Division to be confident of a NCAA berth. So Stansbury expects to see a motivated bunch of Bengals, as well as a rival that already has scored a win at State's expense.

"We know LSU is a very good team, they have one of the best frontcourts in the league with good experience around them. They're a very balanced team with five guys scoring in double-figures. So it will be a difficult game for us." In practices today and tomorrow the State staff will be working on ways to prevent a repeat of that first meeting, if possible, by defending Tiger shooters such as Darrell Mitchell (20 points in that game) better while still attempting to control talented forward Brandon Bass. The soph had 29 points at Baton Rouge and dominated the last half of play.

"Anything we do (defensively) will be better than last time," Stansbury said. "He probably had his best shooting day, he made threes and turnaround jump shots. He can score so many different ways."

Yet one thing Stansbury said will not factor into preparations for this renewal of a great rivalry is the one fans always suggest—revenge. "No," the coach said, "zero. It's you're next game."

Besides, he added, "If we'd won it down there how would we use it? So we don't get into revenge. It's our next game and it's the most important game. You can't get into using gimmicks all the time. Our kids understand the situation we're in without me having to tell them, and how important it is to win at home."

The Bulldogs have been very good on the home court this year, with ten victories and five SEC triumphs so far. Holding serve at The Hump is more important than ever, though, because all four of State's league losses have been on the road. The upcoming schedule sends the Dogs out of town for consecutive trips, to Kentucky and Georgia, so Wednesday's game becomes even more important in the season's scheme.

It's no coincidence that the struggles away from home began when Winsome Frazier was sidelined by a broken bone in his left foot. Since the January 11 surgery coaches, teammates, and fans all have speculated on when the senior guard would be able to return, and Saturday evening the home crowd saw Frazier in uniform for the first time since the injury at Oxford on January 8.

Frazier was warming up with his teammates, taking layups and perimeter shots just as he began doing last week. But today Stansbury squashed, almost anyway, speculation Frazier will be available Wednesday night. "There's zero chance against LSU the way it looks right now," the coach said, leaving just a tiny bit of room for doubt…or hope. Maybe.

"And he hasn't practiced with us yet," said Stansbury. "It's a big difference from shooting on your own and practicing. We'll have to wait and see. Wednesday is not an option. Whether he plays on Saturday, I don't have an answer. Maybe after practice Monday and Tuesday it will be a little clearer." What is clearer is that spirits on the club as a whole are higher with Frazier getting involved again.

"Just having him back out there moving around gives you some hope he'll be back," Stansbury said. "And we know it will take some time once he gets back to get into a rhythm. But having him on the bench is a confidence boost to everybody."

Bulldog confidence has been shaken in the last few weeks, with close losses at Tennessee and LSU and embarrassing defeats at Alabama and Auburn. Stansbury makes no excuses, but if asked directly he will remind all of what this lineup has been missing. "Injuries are part of the game," he said, "some injuries affect you more than others.

"This particular injury does because of the makeup of our team it's been a huge adjustment. Besides being our best three-point shooter and second-leading scorer he's our best defender. It allows teams to play Lawrence Roberts differently, they get to him quicker on doubles. We haven't been able to make them pay (with perimeter shooting) as much as we'd like. But to Lawrence's credit he's played through some frustration and kept his composure."

Roberts has also kept producing double-doubles under demanding circumstances, and is averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds despite non-stop attention from multiple defenders that make it tougher to get to the basket. Yet despite the apparent struggles, Stansbury is even more impressed with the All-American's performances this season than last when Roberts was chosen SEC Player of the Year.

"He's a better player from a maturity standpoint," Stansbury said. "The makeup of our team is nothing like last year. He played center for us last year and had a quickness advantage every night, and more skill around him with Timmy Bowers and Branden Vincent. He's played forward this year and he's being guarded by quicker guys. But he has shown more maturity, he's much more explosive than last year. I just think he finishes better."

In team-terms, the Bulldogs need to finish their only ‘homestand' of this SEC season with a pair of wins that will leave State alone at West #2. Then they can start thinking about the upcoming road swing and setting up for the Division stretch run.

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