With good reason and powerful motivation, too. The Bulldogs and Razorbacks, who collide tomorrow in Fayetteville, are jostling for the best possible post-season positioning as tournament time looms. Both have a pair of conference contests left to improve respective resumes, and since one of them is against each other the stakes Tuesday are all the greater. In fact, these two teams are going to be seeded either third or fourth at next week's SEC Tournament.
Not that this is foremost in Stansbury's mind as he prepares to play Arkansas. "I don't know if there's a huge difference between a three or a four seed," he noted. "You just want to win games, and you want to win games late in the year."
Especially late this year. The Bulldogs go into this week with 20 wins, and are 8-6 SEC. Arkansas has 18 victories and is 6-8 SEC. And while Mississippi State does hold a stronger stance in regard to NCAA aspirations, the Razorbacks see an opportunity to grab that same ground away with a hotter finish.
And Stansbury says Arkansas has the team to do it right now. "They're at home where they're always good, and they're playing well. So we know it will be a difficult challenge." Much more difficult than when the teams played back on January 15 and the Bulldogs scored a surprisingly easy 80-55 homecourt victory. The MSU coach is not worried that his team will take this rematch for granted, or put too much stock in that earlier rout.
"We all respect Arkansas," Stansbury said. "That's kind of the way this league has been this year, a lot of teams win at home and go on the road and get beat big. We've experienced that ourselves." Besides, he added, this is not the exact same team State beat up on six weeks ago. "I know he (Heath) has changed his lineup and is playing a lot of people here lately.
"They've had a good year, they're playing well. When they get to running and shooting threes at home they're awful good."
At times this season the Bulldogs have been quite good themselves, as the record shows. And having rebounded from consecutive defeats with back-to-back wins over Georgia (away) and Mississippi (home) there are encouraging signs that State is getting stronger at the end of the schedule.
"We did something Saturday that was one goal," Stansbury said of the homecourt victory over the Rebels. "We had to get at least eight wins in the league. And it got us 20 wins. We have to keep trying to win games, and we need to find a way to go on the road and win another game."
State has just two league victories away from home, at Mississippi and Georgia. Arkansas is a much tougher proposition, with an infamous homecourt advantage in Walton Arena. It took the 2004 SEC Champion Dogs to score State's first win ever in Walton Arena, in fact, and they had to hold on at the end tooth-and-claw after bolting to a huge opening lead. "We won't get off to a 22-2 lead!" Stansbury said of this year's turn in Fayetteville.
Because this is not the same team. For that matter the squad playing this Tuesday is not the same one that beat Arkansas in January. In a sense that was one of State's most impressive wins of the year. "We were at home the first time, and that was basically our first game without Winsome Frazier totally. I thought our kids really stepped up and played with a lot of emotion. Now we're trying to work Frazier back in and that changes us, too."
Thus the chemistry comment. As the senior guard continues his successful but not completed recovery from a January 8 broken foot, the State staff has some interesting choices to make. Frazier played 31 minutes in Saturday's win, after stints of 24, 26, and 31 minutes in previous games since his return. He's also scored 40 points in that span with six three-point goals.
So, when does the senior return to the starting lineup? Stansbury didn't exactly answer that Monday morning. "It's obvious he's not back where he was at all. So that's part of the decision. How many minutes he plays or whether he starts or not is not important. He's going to play a lot of minutes."
Yes, the coach acknowledged, there has been talk of getting Frazier back in his previous starting job. It all comes down to deciding if it is more important having the veteran shooter/defender in the lineup for tipoff or mid-halves, or rested for the end of games.
"I can't play him 40 minutes," Stansbury said. "It's a process with him Quickness hurts him a little bit. We can't just have him do everything as much as we'd like, but he's playing a bunch and will continue to whether I start him or not."
Then again, Stansbury has been publicly pessimistic in several situations this season—such as the original outlook for Frazier's return, and then how much he might play against LSU, and so on. A week ago it was the condition of forward/center Lawrence Roberts' bruised thigh that had the coach wondering if he could play at all at Georgia, before the senior all-American started the game and collected 19 points and a dozen rebounds.
Stansbury still insists Roberts, the SEC's rebounding leader and now #3 scorer at 17.4 points, isn't 100% yet. "He has some soreness still, but hey, when the game starts his stats don't show it. He seems to be able to block it out when that game starts."
Frazier's absence cost the Dogs dearly as they lost half the eight games played without him. But there has been one positive result, as fellow senior Shane Power has increased his contributions. Power has averaged 17.0 points over the past seven games, and tossed in 21 treys.
"You see him play with everything he's got," Stansbury said. "It's obvious offensively right now all the hard work he has put in. We had to get him aggressive, before Frazier went out he wasn't aggressive enough and it took three or four games after that to convince him his team needed hit. To his credit he's worked had and over the last seven, eight games he's shot about 50% from the three-point line. He's playing well." Well enough to be considered for All-SEC honors, too.
The coaching staff has at least one other situation to consider before Tuesday's game, how they want to handle point guard duties. Stansbury has made his frustration with Gary Ervin's recent play clear, and the sophomore has been equally unhappy about missing minutes when juco off-guard Jamall Edmondson takes the point. Edmondson has been a pleasant surprise with his ability to move the ball on offense, though this has taken away some of his offensive aggressiveness.
But the best Bulldog attack is fast-breaking offense, and nobody runs transition better on this roster than Ervin when he is playing well. Stansbury said he has discussed the situation with Ervin. "We've talked about it, about things we have to do better. It's obvious no one makes mistakes on purpose, they don't miss shots on purpose. But at the same time we've got to find a way to limit bad positions we put ourselves in. The ones Gary has to eliminate are his doings as much as the defense most of the time."
The Bulldogs were to leave early this afternoon, around 3:00, for their flight to Fayetteville and have an evening practice in Walton Arena.