Network and home team alike certainly hope this game is more competitive than the first, when host Alabama destroyed State 98-49 on January 18. And few could anticipate a blowout this time around, not with the revived Bulldogs back on The Hump for their last time this season.
"It's our last home game, and a win is important to us," said Stansbury.
A win would be pretty big for Alabama as well, since the Tide is now tied with LSU for first in the West at 11-4 SEC each. A Division title and bracket-leading seeding in next week's SEC Tournament is at stake for Alabama, as well as priceless points when the NCAA seeds and sites on March 13.
But Stansbury did not want to talk Thursday about any sort of spoiler's role for State, which had a two-year streak of Division titles snapped. "I haven't thought about what it means to them. We've got six seniors and we want to send them out on a positive note." Those upperclassmen are center Marcus Campbell, guard Seth Cannon, guard Winsome Frazier, forward Ontario Harper, guard Shane Power, and forward Lawrence Roberts.
The senior State-smen are justifiably optimistic that they will be able to walk off the home court the last time as winners. The Bulldogs, only break-even in league play two weeks ago, are coming off victories over Georgia, Mississippi, and Arkansas, and bring a 9-6 SEC record and 21-8 overall mark into the regular-season finale.
More than that, the Dogs come home confident after knocking off the Razorbacks by a bucket Tuesday evening in Fayetteville. "We're very pleased to be on a three-game winning streak now," Stansbury said. "We're coming off a big road game, a win that our team needed in the worst way. Not just the win, but in terms of bringing us together."
The last time State played a Tide team, things looked headed the other way as the Bulldogs were blown out by halftime. "It was one of those nights when everything they did was right and everything we did was wrong," Stansbury said. But immediately after and ever since the coach has maintained a mantra that no matter the margin that loss did not sink State's season. "It all counts as one win and one loss."
But for all his protests that he hasn't given that rout a thought since, the coach seems to be keeping some sort of score. "We've been able to go 6-4 since then without one of our best players, so it didn't affect us," Stansbury said. The reference was to Frazier, who broke a foot bone on January 8 and missed that and eight other games. State went 4-4 in that span.
The Dogs also lost in Frazier's first two games back, but have since put together the three-game streak. We've been able to get two road wins, something we'd struggled to do without him," Stansbury said. "We had one at Ole Miss with him and didn't win another one until he got back.
"He's still only about 75%, but just having his experience and toughness helps. And by NCAA time he'll be better for us, the longer he's back the better our team gets. I don't think anybody would disagree that if we'd had him all year we'd have won two or three more conference games. But it's to our team's credit that they've been able to put themselves in the position we're in."
A much stronger position for this rematch, presumably. The win at Arkansas was as big a boost to the team's attitude as anything they have done the rest of the season. While the Bulldogs did let the host Razorbacks go on a second-half surge and take a lead, they also made the end-of-game plays to score only their second-ever (and second-straight) victory in Walton Arena.
And again it was a point guard making clutch plays; this time, Gary Ervin, likely the last Dog anyone would have thought would take and make the decisive shot. But it was the sophomore who took and open three-pointer under pressure and watched it bounce through, giving State control. Stansbury, who has had some difficult talks with Ervin lately, was prouder than anyone.
"He's been up and down for us, he's had some good moments and some bad moments. But we all showed confidence in him leaving him in there at the end of the game, and him jumping up and making the shot didn't surprise us." In fact, Stansbury reminded media of how Ervin made a clutch basket last March in Tuscaloosa when State rallied from 18 points down in the second half to force overtime and ultimately win both the game and an outright SEC Championship.
That's an Ervin who hasn't been seen often lately, but is ready to re-emerge. "He's got enough moxie and confidence about him that he feels he can make that shot," Stansbury said. "And I'm glad he felt that way the other night, because he made a big one for us."
No Dog was making shots, big or otherwise, in the first round at Alabama, while every Tide man was a marksman. Asked if he minded the fact that some Alabama starters were still scoring with only a handful of minutes left in the last half, Stansbury again downplayed things. "Hey, I didn't worry about that. We were getting beat so bad it didn't matter who was in, we weren't coming back."
Saturday the scoreboard will read 0-0 at tipoff, though, as a ferocious border war resumes. Not since 1999 has either team swept a season series (State did that year), and last year each won on the other's home court. Asked why the rivalry has become so serious for the other team, Stansbury got to the point.
"It probably starts with just winning. I don't know if Alabama people in the past ever accepted Mississippi State winning consistently, and we've been able to do that. We're not but an hour away and that makes it even more intense. And there's been some recruiting wars that make it more intense. That's what makes college basketball fun."
As to perceptions that the competition between the coaches is as intense as that on the court, Stansbury tried not to fan any flames. "I don't think we'll go on vacation together, but I don't have any problem with Mark (Gottfried). If we weren't having to compete against each other we wouldn't have this situation between us. I think it's more fans blowing it up more than it is."
Besides, Saturday's game does not need any more ‘blowing up' to stack up as a premier event not just in the SEC but on the national stage. What happens in The Hump this weekend will impact events in Atlanta and figure into NCAA calculations next Sunday when 64 teams are seeded and sited.
"Alabama is one of the most talented teams in the country," said Stansbury. "We all understand how easy it was for them the first time. We have to be at our best to have any chance in this game, but we're looking forward to it."