Preparations are positively underway today, with the Bulldogs holding their first full practice in nearly a week. Upon return from the SEC Tournament, Stansbury gave the team all Saturday off and had them assemble Sunday for meetings, treatment, and of course announcement of State's postseason fate. Now it's back to business, specifically preparations for a Friday evening meeting with Stanford in Charlotte, N.C.
The Bulldog and Cardinal play their first round as part of the overall Austin, Tex., Regional, and they are the ninth and eighth seeds, respectively. Gametime from the Charlotte Coliseum has been set at 9:55ET/8:55CT, following the game between Regional #1 seed Duke and #16 Delaware State. The winners of Friday's set meet Sunday for the right to advance to Austin and the ‘Sweet 16' round on March 25.
While his players were presumably resting (school is out for spring break this week) after their two games in Atlanta, the head coach and aides were still on the job making plans; first for the trip to Charlotte, then for the first-round game. Most of the travel arrangements have been taken care of. State leaves Wednesday, will practice and meet the media Thursday, and be ready to play by Friday night…presumably.
As to game preparations, that began as soon as the inter-conference matchup was announced. Maybe even before then, Stansbury said today. "I watched Stanford three or four weeks ago, on one of those late-night games." By last night the assistant staff had one game tape to break down, with more arriving Monday.
Still Stansbury had a few impressions of the Cardinal to share Monday morning. Stansford has a steady point guard in Chris Hernandez (15.3 points per game, with 62 three-pointers) who has taken over more of a scoring role since the season-ending injury to leading scorer Dan Grunfeld eight games ago. Grunfeld, son of former Tennessee great Ernie Grunfeld, tore a knee ligament, costing his team almost 18 points and six rebounds per contest.
Now other Cardinal players are picking up the load, and the minutes. "They're a very balanced team," Stansbury said. "They've got some size inside." That would be forward Matt Haryasz, a 12.4 point, 9.1 rebound frontcourt man, playing alongside a 6-10 center. Stanford has the athleticism and experience to run, but this year has tended to play under control and now, without Grunfeld, almost a deliberate style of game. "They're probably a little more half-court oriented than we want to be, they probably want to keep it to a slower pace than we want."
The pace shows in the averages, with Stanford scoring 70 points while giving up 68; shooting 44% overall and allowing 42%. It's a style that allows little margin for error, but the Cardinal like it. "They don't beat themselves very often," Stansbury said. "And they possess some toughness. So it's going to be a difficult game for us."
More difficult, maybe, because Mississippi State hasn't played a team that really compares to Stanford. The Dogs have played a few clubs that pace their game, and others with NCAA experience, but none with both attributes. His team will see a different style, Stansbury agreed. "And they may, too. But the things that have to be constant are being able to defend and rebound. Obviously you want to make some shots, teams that can score it helps feed your defense. And you've got to take care of the basketball."
Stanford has done that well enough to go 18-12 and win 11 of 18 games in the Pac-10. This is not the same Cardinal team that blitzed to a #1 seeding last March with only one regular-season loss. But there are enough veterans from that club with bitter memories of a second-round upset by Alabama that seeing another SEC foe on the other bench should provide extra motivation.
Stansbury will do what he can to get State ready for what he expects the Cardinal will try to one their end of the floor. "I know Stanford is a very good defensive team, we'll have our work cut out against them to score." They trick will be making the other guys play the way the Bulldogs play best. "We want to get up and down the court if we can. We like to score early as much as we're capable of. If we can get stops we want to push it and score in transition."
Besides, he added, "All season we've seen a little bit of everything. We've had some injuries that really changed the way people defended us, no question at that point we saw more zone and double-teams than previously. But there's no defense we haven't seen somewhere along the way."
The hope is that come Friday, the Cardinal will see a healthy bunch of Bulldogs lined up for tipoff. Hope, because as of today Mississippi State is far from full-strength. "We're just banged-up," Stansbury said. Senior guard Shane Power was to try practicing again on the right ankle he sprained last Wednesday in a shootaround at the SEC Tournament. He played well in a win against Georgia but the ankle stiffened afterwards, and the heavy wrap aggravated a nerve as well. Power was almost a non-factor in the loss to Florida.
So was senior guard Winsome Frazier, who played well in six regular-season games after returning from a broken foot but struggled to get through games on consecutive afternoons. The Bulldog backcourt was in bad shape by day-two, Stansbury noted. "Shane was a shell of himself. Whether it was back-to-back games or whatever it was obvious Frazier didn't have much zip about him and had a problem defending." And on top of that point guard Gary Ervin had a minor hip pointer, which is not a factor this week.
Senior center Marcus Campbell remains uncertain with the calf muscle he pulled March 4. Stansbury said today Campbell's absence was at least partly a factor in State's smaller starting getting whipped by Florida on the backboards. Still it is quite possible senior forward Lawrence Roberts will again be asked to start in the post in another NCAA Tournament.
Stansbury thinks all the bruised and battered Bulldogs should be able to play by Friday; he would not go so far as to say the old starting lineup will be intact. "The number one thing we need to do is get healthy, that overrides anything else." But if State can win Friday night, they will have a day off before the second-round contest and that certainly would help Power and Frazier recover, not to mention Roberts after he will again surely take a full night's full contact in the paint by swarming defenders.
Ability of these gimpy Dogs to line up and play is one thing; to play at their old best is another issue. Looking at the weekend, Stansbury thinks his team can defend and rebound just as all season. The key added ingredient will be offense, particularly perimeter scoring. And that depends on Frazier getting back on-target here at the end of his Bulldog career.
"He hasn't shot it particularly well for us," Stansbury said of the last few games. "But just having him back still stretches the defense out. People respect him as a shooter, they have to stretch out to get him. He's not shooting nearly like he was before he went down, but just having the capability of knocking down three or four shots in a row is something they have to be aware of."
Scouting and planning will occupy the early week as State's staff works on their goals for the Stanford game. "Sometimes maybe it's easier said than done," Stansbury admitted. And shooting is always unpredictable when unfamiliar teams meet in new, neutral settings. Thus the coach's emphasis on the things that can be controlled, like effort and attitude. And if his team could suddenly get healthy in time for the postseason…
"Focus is a big part of it. Naturally there's a lot of things we'd like to get better at. But we'd won four of our last five games, and the game we lost we played extremely hard. And we can look back and see Florida was pretty good." As in, going on to beat Alabama and Kentucky to take the SEC tourney.
The Bulldogs did not. Nor did they win any sort of SEC title this season, snapping a three-year string of various championships. State players clearly are not happy with how their regular season played out, injuries notwithstanding. And even on selection Sunday there was not a lot of locker-room celebration when Mississippi State's name turned up on the bracket-board.
Stansbury isn't concerned by that lack of open emotion. In fact, he sees a good sign there, as well as in public disappointment that this team is ‘only' 22-10 and heading for a school-record, fourth-straight NCAA appearances. "If we weren't expecting to win championships, maybe you could take something from it," the coach said.
"And I think it speaks for our program that we're a little disappointed when we win 22 games and are in the NCAAs. We've got it where we want it. We're not happy just to be a part of it, we want to compete for championships."
And starting Friday, these disappointed Dogs have their chance to compete for the biggest title of them all.