From The Dawghouse

It was one of those meaningless sideline sideshow moments that have nothing to do with the game but still say a lot about the sport. Midway of the second half, his team not playing so very well in a contest that absolutely had to be won for both rivalry and posteasons reasons, Rick Stansbury made a substitution. A senior starter was waved to the scorer's table to replace a rookie who'd just committed a silly defensive error.

From my press seat, I noticed a student front-row fan—one of Rick's own Rowdies, in fact—react in furious disbelief. "WRONG, Stansbury!" the kid roared, waving a big thumbs-down at the coach. "No, wrong!" I guess from the youngster's vantage point removing a touted and talented freshman in favor of a steady but non-star veteran was a ghastly gaffe sure to cost Mississippi State their winning streak against Mississippi, as well as a NCAA opportunity.

Funny how things work out. Over the next couple of possessions Ontario Harper not only stabilized State's shaky defense in the frontcourt and keep his Rebel counterpart off the backboards, but on offense he repeatedly fed Lawrence Roberts the ball in positions to score, draw fouls, or both. His veteran presence was a very vital if not easy to observe reason why the Bulldogs were able to settle down, take control, and ultimately come away with a narrow but satisfying victory. In ironic fact, it was Harper who had the presence of mind, when the UM foul shooter intentionally missed, to deflect the rebound out of bounds and run out the clock.

I doubt any current MSU rookie would've done as well under those second-half circumstances. And yes, I was tempted to step over to the lad afterwards and ask his after-the-fact opinion on whether the head coach had indeed made the correct call. But that would have been wrong on my part. Heck, despite the quarter-century or so's age difference, both of us wanted the same thing—another win over Them. We both got it, though he had the freedom to cheer openly (and did) as the victorious Dogs departed the court, while I had to maintain some sort of perfeshunal public demeanor.

The larger point is that, for all the frustrations of this ongoing SEC season, for all the missed chances and poor performances, for all the remaining uncertainty about the postseason situation, the Bulldogs know what they are doing. Or are trying to do, is a better way to say it. As the schedule winds down and tournament time looms larger in the MSU mindset what ought to be recognized is that Stansbury & Co. are doing what they believe is best for this ball club, this season.

Whether it all works out, well, that's what these next two weeks are about.

How one sees the current postseason picture depends on which side of the scoresheet we focus on first. For the heck of it we'll begin on the positive page. Twenty wins, eight conference wins, an unofficial but generally reliable reported RPI of 30 and schedule-strength of 64 at the end of February; it all makes a pretty convincing case that Mississippi State is headed back to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth-straight March.

But what are the debits on this particular ledger? Hmmm. Just one ‘quality' win (Florida). No wins over ranked-at-the-time teams. Unlikely to finish better than third in the Western Division, and potentially a #4 seed in the conference tournament via tiebreak if they end up 8-8 SEC. And ‘bad' losses to Tennessee and Auburn.

What does it all add up to? Late-season uncertainty, that's what. And the greatest unknown is the one that Mississippi State cannot control—how many bids will the SEC receive? If, as the halftime show talking heads have it, the league is allotted just four NCAA berths, well, that is likely that. It would take winning the SEC tourney outright or at least getting to the finals, as well as an early exit by LSU (higher RPI and SOS) or Florida (lower RPI, better SOS), to nab one of four bids.

I'm not buying the four-team limit right now, though, not even allowing for our regional paranoia about what the national folk think of our league. This is a five-bid year for the SEC, minimum. And unless Arkansas goes on a tear in Atlanta…hmmm, better add that to the potential debit-list.

So that's my schizo-Sunday snapshot of where the Bulldog stand going into the last week of their regular season. Nothing is certain for good or ill, save this: win either of these two upcoming games, especially the homecourt finale, and State has to be in. Even an old Dog writer and young Rick's Rowdie can agree on that call.

Some MSU-ellaneous ramblings, while waiting for even Ronald G. Polk to admit it's too wet to play ball…

Walking through The Hump this afternoon, awaiting the official rainout ruling, I note the jumbotron still shows last night's stats. Lawrence Roberts had 20 points, Mississippi State now has 20 wins. Coincidence? You be the judge…

Along that line, I think we can truly say Bulldog Basketball has ‘arrived' at that proverbial Next Level. Why? Because there are hardly any fans making scarcely any fuss about a 20-win season. Guess I'm officially a codger to still see this as a darn big deal at State, because I watched—and reported on—far too many seasons where scoring 20 wins was as likely as me dunking. To have witnessed four consecutive seasons with a score of victories, not to mention successful SEC seasons and rankings and (we hope) NCAA bids was, to be blunt, something unimaginable not so very long ago. Now, most MSU folk are taking this for granted, especially the younger generation that knows nothing but winning. Blessed are they, for they do not carry the psychic scars of us elders who knew another time…

And further expounding, let's not forget that Rick Stansbury has rung up five 20-win records in seven seasons with State. Trivia test: how many 20-win years did all his predecessors combine for? The answer next week…

Getting back to Roberts a moment. He's going to post another season double-double and etch his name ever more deeply in MSU annals as one of the truly great Dogs ever to wear the uniform. The numbers are obvious enough, but I'm not sure though that enough folk appreciate something else about Lawrence—his toughness. The beating this guy takes every game, from head to hip, is almost frightening. Smaller defenders rake at him, bigger counterparts hammer with fist and forearm, and Roberts keeps chugging away, only occasionally—and always justifiably—complaining about the treatment. Roberts would fit right in with the toughest bunch of Bulldogs I ever knew, those 1990 and ‘91 teams of Richard Williams who thrived on physical play back in a day when the SEC was warfare on hardwood…

That said, it doesn't appear Roberts will repeat as SEC Player of the Year. If I had to bet (not vote), I'd say LSU's Brandon Bass will earn the honor this time around…

By pure coincidence, making a run to the second-floor Coke machine (empty, dangit) I ran into Winsome Frazier on the stairway. I thanked him for, as I put it, "saving the game" last night, to which he grinned. OK, maybe that was a slight exaggeration, as the Bulldogs still very well could have come back to beat the Rebels anyway even if that breakaway layup had been scored. I mean, over the last four years State has always found a way to win this rivalry, right? But, nobody on-the-scene denies that Frazier's spectacular saving swataway of Cavadas Nunnery's layup attempt was the single most important turning-point of the evening. From then on the Bulldogs just looked like a team that decided to go ahead and win the #$%& game…

I also teased Frazier that he'll probably get a graduation present from the UM coaching staff this spring. Those guys are probably as sick of seeing Winsome as they were of the other all-time Rebel rouser, Timmy Bowers. Between them the two backcourt Bulldogs established an era of dominance in the series to savor…

Anybody else notice that, with Bowers as well as UM stars Justin Reed and Aaron Harper gone, the ‘state' rivalry is being settled mostly by out-of-state talent now? Only one Mississippian started for State last night, senior Ontario Harper; and two Rebels were natives. Puts a different twist on the argument that Stansbury has owned the series because he controls in-state recruiting, eh?…

Not that I care where their hometowns are, of course. So far this century just pulling on the uniform turns Bulldogs from any zip code into a winner in this series. The common denominator is that Stansbury just notched his 12th win against Umiss in 15 games. Sure, UM teams should be respected for their fanatically-hard play against State, and I'll gladly give ‘em respect…as long as Dog teams keep giving ‘em defeats…

I mentioned it in the scouting report the other day, but maybe it's worth a reminder of how things can always change. Remember, the great Jeff Malone was 0-8 against Mississippi, and it still bugs the heck out of me. So never take ongoing success for granted. Domination must be maintained…

I've defended soph guard Gary Ervin most of this season, and by no means am ready to write him off after a couple of shaky second halves on the homecourt. The kid still has some special abilities that, in the right system and with the right parts to play off of, make him a solid SEC point guard. And what looked like selfish play for the first two-three months was often by necessity, as teams forced Ervin to attack into trouble. But the last couple of weeks it just looks like the youngster has indeed become a bit selfish with the ball, taking too long to get the offense going. How he responds to two very public sit-downs in crunch times will be crucial to Ervin's further development as a college ballplayer. And make no mistake, State needs him both now and the two years to come…

By the same token, I'm pleasantly surprised with how Jamall Edmondson has come along lately. Pre-SEC he was a shooter and nothing else. Now he's actually turning down too many shots, but doing a steady if unspectacular job taking care of the ball on point and giving enthusiastic defensive effort. He'll never be a ‘pure' point guard but ‘Mal is certainly doing a fine job under late-season pressure. And we know he can still shoot that ball…

Give Sharon Fanning's crew credit for their late-season rebound. After a six-game losing streak that should have shattered this senior-laden club's confidence entirely, the Ladydogs knocked their Rebel rivals for a loop, won at Kentucky, and gave utterly superior Tennessee a decent fight. Whatever their postseason fate, these Dogs have shown some heart and given themselves at least an outside shot for tournament time…

She's not the best basketball player ever in a Ladydog uniform. But there's never been and likely never will be a better athlete on the distaff-Dog side than Tan White. I cannot imagine a sport she couldn't have played had she chosen other courses. That said, I'd still like to see Tan and Mary Boatwright (1980-81) play h-o-r-s-e. And Boat did it back when the girls had to play with the men's-size ball…

And speaking of ‘best player,' guess who just wandered into the Hump's pressroom? It's great to see LaToya Thomas back home again, come back for Ladydog Senior Day. I'm sure we could scrounge up a uniform somewhere for the afternoon game…


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