The Bulldogs find out Sunday where they will be at to begin NCAA Regional play, when the national tournament field and first-round matchups are announced. They will also be told when play begins, and thus how long this battered bunch has to restore their legs, their lungs, and--based on a surprisingly lax effort in Atlanta--their lust for playing winning basketball.
"Hopefully we'll be more prepared this weekend," Coach Rick Stansbury said in what was his most diplomatic comment on State's SEC tourney turns. The Bulldogs eased by Georgia on opening day, then were routed by Florida in a 80-64 contest that wasn't really that competitive. The coach was not happy about the effort (or lack thereof) in Atlanta. Nor, fortunately, was his team.
"We've got to put this game behind us and move on to the next season," said senior guard Winsome Frazier.
The post-season, that is. With a 22-10 record and (counting tourney play) 10-8 mark against SEC opposition, Mississippi State is completely confident of receiving an at-large NCAA berth. And if it seems these Bulldogs are more relieved than excited about getting through with scheduled play and on into March's madness, well, that impression isn't entirely wrong. The 2004-05 campaign has been long, hard, and often not much fun. Little has come easily for this team, this season.
Can the postseason be more enjoyable? "Most definitely," said senior forward Lawrence Roberts. "We've had so many ups-and-downs throughout the season, we're at the point where we all have to get together and just push for as many games as we can."
That push starts…whenever and wherever the NCAA deems. Stansbury, who brought the team back home Friday night, has a Sunday afternoon practice scheduled prior to the selection show. Team, coaches, and invited media will watch for the word together. And maybe by tomorrow Stansbury will have a better idea of the possibilities than he did at the SEC tourney, where he admitted he didn't even know where the eight first-round sites are this year.
"The truth about it is it really doesn't matter," Stansbury said. "You'd like to go somewhere your fans can get to." Which would make Nashville, presumably site of the South Regional and in SEC country, the best news. Charlotte, Indianapolis, and Oklahoma City seem acceptable alternatives. But Worcester, Mass., or Cleveland, Tucson, and Boise? "I've been there!" Stansbury said, adding he'd rather not be assigned to the mountain time zone even if the 1995 Bulldogs won two games in Boise.
If he's studied the site schedules since then, Stansbury has another reason to not want Boise as a destination…or Cleveland, Indy, and Tucson. Those four regionals tip off on Thursday. The Bulldogs would clearly benefit from delaying their opening game to Friday, because the locker room looks more like a M*A*S*H set. "We've been dealing with injuries," said Harper, understating the case. Senior guard Shane Power is the latest addition, having rolled his right ankle a day before the Georgia game. He played in that contest and led State in scoring, but paid a second-day price and was no factor against Florida. "I shouldn't have played," he said, "I just didn't have anything to give us."
Nor did senior center Marcus Campbell, limited to a couple of futile minutes by a week-old pulled calf. Frazier, playing consecutive days for the first time since a January 8 broken foot, struggled in the second game. And while not truly ‘injured' Roberts showed the strains of four brutal months' battles in the paint. Florida players blocked three of his shots, all right under the goal, as Roberts could not elevate in traffic.
As far as Roberts was concerned, it was more of the same thing he's faced all SEC season. "Teams are just doing a good job putting a body on me. Once we shot the ball (Florida) made sure a guard came to help knock me out of the way. Teams are just sinking in and concentrating on trying to stop me." Or at least make him pay for every point.
And so it goes for a team not likely to be 100% healthy whenever NCAA play begins. "Right now we're battling injuries, this isn't the best time," said Frazier. "I wish it had happened earlier in the season. But we have to fight through it." Of course Frazier may have forgotten that State has been dealing with health issues since the first week of preseason practices, when Roberts strained his neck in a fall; not to mention the broken nose three weeks later that had the All-American opening his season in a mask.
But injuries are a fact of post-season life for everyone, and if the Bulldogs are more gimpy than most clubs nobody will spare sympathy or spot points. "We've just got to get healthy the next couple of days, bottom-line," Power said. "We've got to heal our wounds and get ready for the NCAA Tournament."
Coming home early from Atlanta did at least offer an extra day's healing time, Stansbury agreed. A Friday start would allow more chance for scouting and preparation. Yet the coach might be more concerned with his squad's mental state as their physical status. Many Dogs, particularly the veterans of previous championship teams, were shaken by what they saw of themselves at the SECs. "We weren't playing our style, we came out and lolly-gagged," said Frazier.
Harper, the lone veteran allowed to play most of the second game with more emotional backups, pointed to the unexpected and upsetting problem. Yes, he acknowledged, this team is not healthy, but State has played through such situations before. "You get upset more as a group than yourself. We didn't deal with it, and this program has been built on toughness." That toughness is reflected by defense and rebounding, things this team has shown over much of the schedule but not enough lately.
Stansbury was naturally concerned by lackluster (or lack of lusty) effort from the starting squad in both league tourney games, and while a sort-of second team had enough to beat lowly Georgia a NCAA-bound Gator bunch was another matter. So while he has more confidence to use backup Bulldogs in situations, the coach would rather have the regular rotation playing as it did in the five weeks before Frazier's injury, or the last weeks of the regular schedule. And don't suggest that Stansbury is giving fans a look at State's future lineups.
"I don't want a glimpse yet, I hope we can play a few more games before you see too much of that! But we like our young kids, they're going to be good for us. All I was asking them to do was play with some energy and emotion."
One glaring weakness has been play- and decision-making at point, as sophomore guard Gary Ervin has been either erratic or inefficient too often of late. Stansbury has turned more and more to junior Jamall Edmondson off the bench to run the offense, a job he was not signed to do but has adequately filled. Stansbury would rather have Ervin making the offense go, but in the do-or-die of March changes are made quicker.
Old Dog Harper talked about trying to figure out why this team, for that matter this year, has seen such inconsistency…other than the injuries, of course. "It's been an up-and-down season. The way we've played either we've got the defense there or the offense, something is missing."
Missing anything, whether shots or spirit, will be disastrous from now on. "Next week it's one-and-done," said Frazier, who was part of the 2003 team that suffered an opening-round upset by Butler. Frazier was NOT predicting a similar fate this March; only reminding everyone that there is almost no room for error and no excuse at all for lack of effort now.
"We just want to extend our college careers as long as possible," Roberts said. Which leads one to wonder if this team, with a senior-laden lineup, could be putting extra pressure on itself now. Frazier admits the thought that every game now can be the last in a Bulldog uniform is in the back of every senior's head. "You can't say coulda-woulda-shoulda, the season is going to be over for us. So I look at it as I don't want to lose early, I want to get to the Sweet 16, the Final Four, I've never been there and I'm not looking for one-and-done right now."
Nor by now do the Dogs care where their NCAA trail begins. "It doesn't matter to me who we play," said Harper. Stansbury agrees. "We're just happy to be playing," the coach said, adding his own perspective on the state of State's season. "The positive thing is we get to play again. There are 275 teams after they get beat out of (conference) tournaments that they go home.
"For this team to be in the position they are to win 22 games and still be playing, I'm proud of them for that." Sunday the Bulldogs learn the where/when/who of their NCAA-position, and get to work on justifying their coach's pride in the season thus-far. And if there is any other post-SEC consolation besides a bit more downtime, it is that State better understands what tournament time is all about.
"You look at is as all good teams can lose in the first round," said Frazier. "It happens every year. And teams that you don't think of end up going to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. So we've got a long way, it doesn't matter who we play or how far we have to go. It's going to be the same thing. You still have to play basketball."