Let's be clear here: I still believe that the bid is State's to lose. At 18 wins with four scheduled games left and the entire SEC Tournament in store, the Bulldogs have adequate opportunity left to complete their NCAA case. But, or maybe it should read BUT, going into this stretch run the Dogs are now equally and obviously capable of losing their previously-presumed place in postseason play.
In fact, now that State has dropped two games off the pace in the Western Division and conceded the tiebreaker to Louisiana State, we might have to do more than just pull for our team to win games. We should begin seriously hoping the TV talking-heads are wrong and that the SEC receives at least five NCAA berths. We're going to need it. Along those lines, we probably ought worry as much or more about someone like Vanderbilt or South Carolina sneaking up from behind, than trying to catch the Tigers. For that matter it's not impossible for Arkansas to steal the #3 West seed with a strong stretch run as the Hogs would have a tiebreak (beating LSU) on the Dogs.
Do we sound a bit pessimistic this overcast Sunday? Well, that's what losing at home to LSU and getting whupped at Kentucky can do…cloud even the most optimistic outlooks. Certainly at the moment more of us are tending to look at the darker side of things, if for no other reason than a season that bore such implied promise has taken several turns for the worse. But let's all try to remain objective, because there are games yet to play and, if the Dogs get their collective act together, to win. At least enough of ‘em to secure a program-record fourth straight NCAA berth.
I doubt anyone, not even the most avid supportive, was surprised State lost to the Wildcats. Even the margin shouldn't seem so startling, not after the blowout at Alabama and the still-stunning setback at Auburn. Unlike last year's club this Bulldog team has proven itself capable of getting just plain beaten. Oops, there I go again, comparing totally different teams of utterly differing characters and capabilities. I will go on the record, again, by saying that this season's struggles out to remind us just how special 2003-04 was.
Anyway, if Saturday's setback was not a shock, losing to LSU—I don't care how hot the Tigers are right now—was a definitely jolt to the system. Heck, we even had Winsome Frazier return to action and hammer home his first two trey-tries…and still lost. Yes, LSU played very, very well, the way that starting five ought to have played all year if truth be known. Though John Brady's politicking is a bit unseemly, don't you think? Let the scores do the speaking.
What bugged me as much about the first home loss of the year wasn't even falling out of first place, it was how a few Bulldogs reacted. It was kept mostly quiet; and yes, a few of us confirmed it the next day but chose not to paint coach or player into a public relations-corner before things were worked out internally. Immediately after the loss Gary Ervin threw on his clothes and left the locker room before the coaches arrived. The point guard was chased down by a half-dressed Lawrence Roberts, in public sight.
Let's not make too much of the matter, as Ervin was on time for Thursday practice—which a coach told me consisted of 100 free throws by every player, in case anyone wonders if Rick Stansbury has noticed his team's problems at the stripe. But we oughtn't overlook a reminder that the '05 Bulldogs just don't have the magical chemistry of…sorry, almost mentioned them again. Let's just say that the pieces this staff has to work with aren't an ideal fit, and honestly they knew all along this would be the case.
Yet there is clearly sufficient talent at all positions to make a winning lineup. The Dogs have proven that. Not a championship club, probably, but a very competitive one all the same. And, with the return of Frazier, a team that might make it's biggest noise in the weeks (and, better still) tournaments to come. Or am I just blowing smoke the way #18's small block Chevy just blew it's guts out both tailpipes? (Y'all don't mind if finish this column while also watching the fun at sun-splashed Daytona, do ya?)
In fact, observing the first round of stops in the 500 segues nicely into some potential pit-work Stansbury and staff might be doing at this same moment. After, that is, they get a better idea of how serious—or not—Roberts' leg injury is. If just a minor pull as initial indications say then L.R. will be OK for UG. Yes, I'll post the official update Monday after Stansbury's 11:20 turn on the SEC teleconference.
Even if Roberts is 100%, I could consider some lineup changes this week. Obviously Frazier is about ready to start again, but that might not necessarily mean moving Shane Power back to small forward and taking tough guy Ontario Harper out. Not after some performances in the paint both last night and Wednesday. Roberts's awful evening did crack a door for a couple other Dogs to have a little off-the-bench fun in the big gym. Walter Sharpe put a little first-half spark in the frontcourt before fouling out as well, showing more of his offensive promise.
And having not touched a court since December 22 rookie Charles Rhodes got his first career SEC action and scored a few points to commemorate the occasion. Hopefully this will stop, at last, queries about whether the rookie is redshirting; he was over the limit two months ago, but that didn't keep confused fans from asking. Reporters, too.
Of course neither can play real defense yet (I don't put much stock in blocked shots when they end up as second-chance baskets anway), which is why finding them minutes is problematic for Stansbury. But lately senior Marcus Campbell hasn't exactly been a defensive bulwark, either, and on offense…
I understand why coaches tend to stay in whatever comfort zone they've carved out in the campaign so far. And for critics who complain that Sharpe and/or Rhodes should have gotten more crucial minutes in the first ten or so SEC games, might I humbly suggest that not having the veterans play as many pressurized possessions as possible would have cost one or even two more league losses; in which case State would really be hurting. Now, should the Dogs not make the tourney anyway, then we'll all revisit the topic with the advantage of hindsight.
Yet right now I wouldn't be adverse at all to getting Sharpe in earlier, if the matchups make sense. They didn't in the case of LSU, but Georgia ought to be another matter. Ought to be. Campbell played well against Arkansas the last time, though. So did Jamall Edmondson, with what I recall as likely his best defensive effort of SEC season. That's sorta-faint praise because the juco guard is not what you'd call a stopper by any stretch of the imagination. For that matter he hasn't been shooting and scoring much lately, the things he was signed for.
But he is a far better playmaker than anyone who watched him back in November would have believed. Which is also a way of saying that Ervin's stock has dropped lately. Inconsistency was as much a factor in not starting at Lexington as attitude. I've been an Ervin defender all season, and still am from the aspect that given the makeup of this club the point guard simply has to force a lot of things. Especially while Frazier was out. Only the coach calling the plays could say for sure how many of Ervin's miscues are from effort and how many are just errors, but apparently the scales have tipped the wrong way lately.
Ahh, well. I can sit here and ponder in critical circles all afternoon, just like them NASCAR boys is a'running in big 2.5-mile circles. But unlike the race, which will end with a winner shortly, the Bulldogs still have laps left to run. Hopefully a whole lot of ‘em. I still think State has the horsepower to finish the schedule at a faster pace, and at the very least to finish 8-8 in the SEC and with 20 regular-season wins. That's not what we'd hoped for two months ago, and definitely not what the Dogs expected of themselves. Not even if they will have, for the first time in program annals, scored four-straight 20-win campaigns. That's for older hounds like myself to appreciate.
They are more concerned and rightly so with this week's games and two excellent opportunities to return to the ‘W' side of the score report. We in turn can hope the Bulldogs do take care of their business, finish February strong, and put themselves in better March position.