In day-two the Dogs will again be playing an Eastern Division opponent, but that is about where all comparisons cease. Georgia was simply playing out a long season-string, while Florida comes in one of the hottest clubs in the conference.
"Florida is playing as well as anybody in our league at this time," Coach Rick Stansbury said. Indeed, the Gators (20-7) are on a four-game winning streak and fresh off a homecourt upset of Kentucky. It was their first win in nine tries against the Wildcats, and gave UF a 12-4 SEC record.
Still, the Bulldogs aren't exactly shaking in their sneakers at this second-round matchup. "We've just got to come out the same way we did the first game," said guard Jamall Edmondson. "If we play had it will be a good outcome."
State could not have asked for a better outcome than the first and only time these teams met in the regular season. Playing at home, the Bulldogs turned a 32-30 halftime margin into a 71-57 victory. A 12-0 surge midway of the second period broke things open, with Florida held scoreless for seven decisive minutes.
That was on the first day of February, and neither team is the same on the second day of the SEC tourney. Which means the Bulldogs are not expecting a duplicate contest. In fact, "You have to put it out of you mind," said senior forward Ontario Harper.
Stansbury said things are definitely different this second time around. "Number one, we're not at home this time." Instead the squads meet up on a neutral court with all the uncertainties that implies for each. More importantly, Stansbury noted, Florida is not the same ball club. "They're coming off a win against Kentucky and have a lot of confidence. They've won four in a row so they're playing awful well."
Well enough to win six of their last seven games, with only a 77-73 setback at LSU against them. The Bulldogs have a pretty good idea what they are up against in this March re-match.
"We saw them beat Kentucky in a dog-fight," senior guard Shane Power said. "They seem to be playing a lot better, their defense looks a lot better. (Anthony) Roberson and (David) Lee have been studs lately, and you can't forget about (Matt) Walsh, he'll step up and knock down some big shots, too."
Roberson and Lee combined for 32 points in Starkville, but Walsh took only five shots and finished with five points. He had an excuse, however, with a bad ankle that is full-strength now. So is the Gator offense, which leads the SEC in scoring and shooting alike. Roberson paces the league at 18.6 points while Walsh and Lee are 13th and 16th.
"We know they've got a lot of talent," Edmondson said. "It's just going to be defense."
Of course the Bulldogs have to score some, too. The MSU offense was hardly a polished machine in beating Georgia. The 46% shooting overall was adequate, but 4-of-13 accuracy at the arc was not encouraging. Still Stansbury saw encouraging signs in the victory. Until the final few meaningless minutes State took good care of the basketball against an aggressive UG defense.
And in the crunch, a number of Bulldog backups provided timely baskets and free throws that were the real margin of victory. True, Stansbury noted, Georgia offered more promising matchup possibilities than the usual SEC opponent. Still he liked the way a ‘second team' performed under pressure. "That whole team was playing well."
"They came in and really played well for us," said Power. "And that's something they're capable of doing. I think they're starting to get that itch, realizing that six of us (seniors) are going to be moving on. They know it's getting close to their chance to play."
Close? In a few cases playing time is now. Stansbury was especially pleased with Morgan's performance in the pivot. With regular starting center Marcus Campbell hampered by a calf-muscle pull, and Roberts in foul trouble in the second half, the 7-2 junior came through with six points, eight rebounds, and a big emotional presence in the post.
"I'm not going to lie, it's good," Morgan grinned after the win. His coach might give the backup center more reason to smile, too. "It didn't surprise me, Wesley has played well for us lately. Wesley is one of those guys who executes, he does all the little things. And he gets better the more he plays. I probably should have played him more against Alabama. But the kids love playing with him."
Campbell got a couple of late minutes in mop-up time, "We played him just to see what he could do and it's obvious he wasn't moving very well," said Stansbury, adding the senior center is doubtful for the rest of this weekend. Campbell is not the only injury-concern, either. Power rolled his right ankle making a cut in Wednesday's shoot-around.
His 7-of-11 shooting was thus more impressive, as most of the baskets came on aggressive drives in traffic and pull-up jumpers. Stansbury tried to rest the senior as much as possible in the second half, then when the reserves got careless with the ball late asked Power to go back in. "And I couldn't," Power said, as the ankle stiffened while he had bee sitting.
"I think he'll be fine," said Stansbury, cautiously. Maybe hopefully, too, though this team certainly ought to be used to dealing with bad injury-luck after a painful four months. Frazier admitted he is still only about 75%-strength, the foot he broke on January 8 still costing some lateral movement and defensive quickness. And while he isn't injured, Roberts appears to be worn-down after a long season of battling double- and triple-teaming defenses that have hit him high, low, and often.
Thus Stansbury's relief at the bench's clutch contributions. In fact, in the second half Thursday he started to send Roberts back on-court only to wave him back for a couple more minutes as the backups were extending the lead to double-digits. "I was just trying to buy as much time as I could." To that end, only Frazier played as many as 30 minutes in the first game.
The second could be another matter…or not, if State's bench can be as productive every time. "Lately we realized the starters can't play every minute," Morgan said. "The bench is going to be key to advancing in the postseason."
And the Bulldogs have to get past Florida to advance to the SEC semifinals again. Beating Georgia was just a matter of taking care of business, Stansbury said. "I was really concerned about that but we found a way to do it. I think tomorrow emotionally and energy-wise we'll be better. Mentally it will be a different level of preparation for us. We'll have to play exceptionally well to win."
Of course State played well in beating the Gators the last time around. For that matter the Dogs have consecutive victories in the series, shocking Florida in Gainesville last season. And the last time these schools met in a SEC Tournament, in 2002, the Dogs also won en route to taking the tourney title in this same arena. A few veterans of that game are still around, too.
Stansbury has confidence his team can do it again, even if Florida is the hotter club coming in. "Our team has won four of the last five, though," the coach noted. And besides, the squads are meeting on un-common ground where anything can happen.
"It's a neutral floor where neither team can hear the crowd much," said Power. "It's a different shooting background. It will be an interesting game tomorrow."