Whether by press-conference words or on-court actions, on Thursday the Bulldogs really did show a looseness—even enjoyment—that was mostly missing all through the campaign. During the evening hour's shootaround at the Charlotte Coliseum, State players ran through their drills with new zest, even some fun. At one point guard Winsome Frazier came over to tease members of the press corps, advising what should be written at courtside.
At center-court Coach Rick Stansbury pretended not to notice that and similar actions, because he was liking everything his team was doing and saying…for a change. When asked during the pre-practice press conference if the Bulldogs were getting some old cockiness back, the coach had some fun of his own. "At the pool table, maybe," Stansbury said, reporting that at their Wednesday night meal some players showed their stuff with cue-and-balls.
Seriously, though, Stansbury is very happy at the attitude the Bulldogs have shown in preparation for their turn on the NCAA stage, in the aftermath of an often-frustrating year. "Y'all know what we've been through," he said. "This team deserves a lot of credit to be in this position. But if you're going to get your swagger back this is the time to do it, because every game can be your last game."
What the Bulldogs obviously hope is their Friday-night contest with the Cardinal is the first in a series of tournament games. Because of the late tipoff (9:55ET/8:55CT) from Charlotte, Mississippi State had the final public practice of Thursday, following their opponent's hour on the court. Not that the Dogs minded being out late, of course. In fact…
"It could help," Roberts said, "you get to rest in the day, and we'll try to use that to our advantage."
The Bulldogs, coaches and players alike, have spent four days looking for any edge they can find in this matchup of #8-seeded Stanford and #9-seeded State. Even those numbers were being interpreted in MSU's favor, casting the 22-10 team as ‘underDogs' to the 18-12 Cardinal.
Guard Shane Power sounded like a sportswriter musing about the possibilities this sub-regional offers. "Each tournament is it's own novel in itself. We just hope we're one of those dangerous teams, healing at the right time and coming together as one. We're playing with nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Well, there is the matter of advancing to the second round and meeting the winner of Friday's preceeding contest between top-seed Duke and Delaware State. That would be a definite gain, and almost surely give State a prime-time appearance Sunday against a premier program. It would also vindicate most of the struggles and frustrations these Bulldogs have endured.
"All we've been through, injuries and ups and downs, coming together and getting some wins will be a good ending to the season," Roberts said. "That's what we're all looking for."
Though seeded a slot lower the SEC Bulldogs are seen as a slight favorite over the Pac-10 Cardinal. Of course State has found out the hard way the last three years that seedings don't matter much when the ball goes up. That is one reason why this bunch goes into tourney-time more relaxed, Power explained…sort of.
"There's a huge difference. I really feel as a one-two-three seed you don't want any tough games. Coming in as a eight/nine you know you've got to play the best, that you didn't do what you needed to in the season and have to play one of the best teams right off the bat. So you're ready to be a in a tight game and scratch and claw and try to come up with a win."
So in a strange way, modestly-seeded and with lower expectations, the Dogs look like a bunch ready to just enjoy themselves in the postseason pressure-cooker. "This week ironically has been our best week of practice," Power said. "The last three, four days every day has been our best day so far. That's a great sign."
There are other signs equally important and more objective, such as a healthier roster this week. "We've had a good approach, and that's a little to do with getting some people back on the floor," Stansbury said. "That time off really helped us. It's helped Shane and Frazier." Power's ankle, injured last Wednesday in pre-SEC Tournament drill, is back to "100%" according to the coach. "Frazier is the one that needed it more than anybody, that second game in the tournament took a toll on him."
Center Marcus Campbell, who missed the last schedule game and played sparingly at Atlanta with a calf pull, still has some tightness but has practiced this week. "He will play tomorrow night," Stansbury said. But not start, as the staff will stick with the fivesome that opened against Alabama and in two SEC tourney games. "We're going to start that small lineup. We've changed so many times, we're going to leave it like the last time."
That means Roberts will open at center with Ontario Harper at ‘big' forward, Power and Frazier on the wings and Gary Ervin on point. It's a natural move in the situation, but also one that sets up the possibility of mismatches for both teams. Stanford is expected to start a front line standing 6-11, 6-10, and 6-6, along with a 6-5 swingman. In fact the Cardinal has the height on every State starter by position.
But Stanford is also a deliberate club that tries to keep the pace to their liking. "Because we're going with a quicker lineup the advantage is getting out running no matter who is on the other end," Roberts said. "So we have that advantage just from the fact that we're going with a smaller lineup."
"We've got to put some pressure on Stanford and maybe try to speed the game up a little," said Power, "they're so big and physical down low we don't want to grind with them. But we're not going to do anything careless." At the same time the Bulldogs have to stay aggressive on offense. Stanford is the rare team that doesn't believe in double-teamming, even someone of Roberts' reputation. So State is preparing to take on a lot of zone sets, trying to keep from letting the offense stagnate.
"We've worked on having more movement and cutting off Lawrence more," said Power. "We want to make them pay. Certainly it will be key if we can hit some perimeter jumpshots, but if we can get some guys cutting to the basket that will be key early."
"We just prepare for whatever they have for us, a lot of zone or whatever," Roberts said. "But if they go to a double team we'll try to do a good job to keep moving, don't stand around. And if we do that we're going to get some good shots."
Making shots will make the difference, naturally. That is where Power and Frazier come in, especially the latter even if he is not near his old full-speed. "Frazier is giving us everything he has, but it's obvious he's not the old Frazier," said Stansbury. "But his toughness and experience and ability to make a shot will help." So will having Campbell available, along with a variety of Dogs who gained a measure of experience over the season when teammates were hurting.
By the same token, a lot of usual factors can turn in strange ways in the intensity of tournament play. Few know this better than veterans of State's previous three NCAA appearances, when the higher-seeded Dogs fell twice in the second round and once in the first. With six seniors on the roster and a staff that has seen postseason frustrations in full, it's natural to ask if Mississippi State is finally due some good luck here in 2005. Stansbury hesitates on that question.
"I don't know if you look at luck. I know three years ago we got messed up in that pod system at Dallas. The year after that we got beat by a good butler team, last year in the second round its' obvious we drew the hottest team in the country in Xavier. It's not about luck as much as everybody in this tournament is good. It's different for us than the last three years, we're going in a lower seed. Will it change the outcome? We'll have to wait and see."
But the oldest Bulldog thinks he knows what will be seen from State on Friday night. "This will be my last year," said Harper. "We've got a different mindframe. We'll set the tone early with our effort and energy and the rest of the team will feed off that. Anything else is unacceptable. I know with these other guys 100 percent will be the best effort for all of us."