The Bulldogs play in the second game of Thursday's opening session, with a 3:15ET contest against Georgia. The winner faces Florida on Friday at the same gametime. Mississippi State owns regular-season wins over each of these Eastern clubs, and will have to beat both again just to make this tourney's Saturday semifinal.
Of course Stansbury will only discuss the first day of play in Atlanta, when his team takes on the geographical ‘home' squad. "We're going to play Georgia, and I know they're going to be a scrappy team." State, which finished third in the Western Division at 9-7 SEC, are paired with the East's #6 squad setting up a Bulldog vs. Bulldog match on the first day. The UG Dogs, with a roster still limited by NCAA sanctions incurred by the previous coaching staff, struggled to a 8-19 finish with a 2-14 league record, worst of any conference squad. Georgia limped down the season stretch, losing their last four games and nine of the last ten league contests, and all year failed to win a true ‘road' game.
Those losses included a 76-62 home setback to Mississippi State, which began a three-game win string with the road victory. That win was also something of a landmark for Stansbury, his first-ever success in Athens. Yes, his team did the job in the first meeting, Stansbury agreed.
"Which means nothing now when you play them again. We have to get our kids to understand that, I know Georgia will be ready to play." Even then Stansbury has to guard against overconfidence, as State takes on a team with nothing to lose. Only two UG Dogs are scoring in double-figures, with Levi Stukes contributing 15.4. The guard missed five games with an ankle injury, which played a part in Georgia's SEC woes. Now the other Bulldogs are as close to full-strength as possible and playing close to home.
Mississippi State is not 100% healthy this week. That's nothing unusual of course, as various Bulldogs have missed games or played ill often through much of the season. The latest casualty is senior center Marcus Campbell, who pulled a calf muscle the day before State's regular-season finale with Alabama and did not participate in his last home game. "For him to not even try to play, it's bad," Stansbury said of the injury.
Nor does the coach anticipate Campbell being ready by Thursday. "I don't think so. He wasn't a whole lot better yesterday. It's the first game he's ever missed for injury in four years. We could have used his big body." With Campbell watching the Bulldogs came up short 68-63 to the Crimson Tide, which clinched the West title and swept the regular-season series with State for the first time since 1994.
Playing mostly with a ‘small' lineup and forward Lawrence Roberts at center, the Bulldogs still turned in an impressive effort as far as defense and rebounding against Alabama. In fact most judged the game as the best ‘D' these Dogs have played all year. But State was not nearly as strong at the other end, especially from the perimeter, and lack of scoring meant ending the regular schedule with a frustrating loss.
A key now is to not let bad shooting—the Dogs were just 5-of-28 at the three-point line—linger in the team's mind and taint tournament confidence. "We don't even talk about it," Stansbury said. "There's a lot of things you can point to, and no one has the answer for sure. We had good shooters taking shots and they just didn't make them. I don't think any of us would tell Winsome Frazier or Shane Power not to shoot. It's one of those things that happens." The Bulldogs can only hope that sort of thing doesn't happen this weekend, or the next when State plays in the NCAA Tournament. The defense, now, that is something Stansbury would love to see all through tournament season. It won't be easy to reach the same levels of intensity as in the home finale, he noted. "Because you don't have the emotions of Senior Day or our gym. But at the same time the thing that's been constant with us is we've done a good job lately of defending and rebounding. We've out-rebounded several opponents on the road."
Now the Bulldogs have to win on the boards, and defense, on neutral courts, where everybody has to adapt to unfamiliar shooting settings. One thing Stansbury does not believe will be a factor in the Georgia Dome is the assurance State has going into Sunday's NCAA selection show. At 21-9 the Dogs are now sure to be in the ‘big dance.' This weekend is about winning one tournament to improve seeding in the second.
"It never has (been a problem)," Stansbury said of his team's expectations of a NCAA berth. "We've gone over there knowing we're a NCAA bid team, and we've been in the finals two years." That was 2002, when State won the SEC Tourney title, and 2003 when they lost to Kentucky. "And our teams have been pretty good over there for the most part," he said, speaking of the Georgia Dome where the Dogs dominated in '02. For that matter, over his six seasons as head coach Stansbury has compiled a 7-5 record in SEC tourneys. By comparison, from 1979 to 1998 (the ‘modern' SEC Tournament era) all State teams were just 7-18.
This squad heads to Atlanta with another 20-plus win season for the books and a NCAA assignment awaiting them. Still these Bulldogs have been labeled a disappointment both in the conference and from a national perspective. Ranked as high as 11th mid-season, State is unrated going into tournament season and failed to repeat a third year as Western Division champs.
Stansbury sees things in a different light, though. "I look at it this way," he said of the ‘disappointment' label. "That tells you where our program is, for anybody to think we're a disappointment. We have 21 wins, we've got a NCAA bid. That speaks to where our program is at. And I like that. Everybody expects us to compete for championships, and that's not how it's always been."
This week, and next, the Bulldogs will again be competing for championships. Tournament championships, that is, as the newest ‘season' tips off. "This team still put itself in this position," said Stansbury, "and they deserve a lot of credit."