State Sets Sights On Sunday's Second Round

Call it the flip-side of success. The locker room door had scarcely closed on Mississippi State's 93-70 victory over Stanford, and a brief burst of Bulldog celebration was already over. They had serious business to discuss—specifically, the upcoming second round of NCAA Regional play.

"As excited as we were to have won that game, now we have Duke facing us," Coach Rick Stansbury said Saturday afternoon, prior to his team's practice session at the Charlotte Coliseum. "It doesn't take you long to lose that excitement."

Or, perhaps, to find another sort of excitement as State prepares to take on the top-seed Blue Devils tomorrow. In fact, as forward Lawrence Roberts put it, "We have the chance to have an exiting game, and if we come with the same energy it should be a great matchup."

Certainly it is an imposing one as the Bulldogs (23-10) and #9 seed in the overall Austin Regional challenge Duke (26-5) for the right to advance to the ‘Sweet 16' round in Texas. Sunday's game follows the Syracuse Regional matchup of North Carolina and Iowa State, with tipoff a half-hour after the 2:30 first contest ends.

"We know it's going to be quite a challenge for us," said Stansbury. "We have to play exceptionally to have a chance. But we're looking forward to the opportunity."

Guard Shane Power second that emotion. "It's a great opportunity in front of us. We took advantage of a great opportunity lat night, now we're playing arguably the best team in the country with the best coach. So we want to go seize it."

The Bulldogs definitely seized opportunity in Friday's first round, storming back from a dozen-point deficit in the first half to take an intermission lead and then running away with a 14-0 surge in the last period to end Stanford's season. Save for a stretch midway of the first period, State put together as well-rounded a performance as has been seen all season. The Dogs shot straight, defended aggressively, and rebounded with abandon to knock off the #8 seed and score the most points ever by MSU in NCAA play.

"We weren't ready to go home yet," Power said Saturday. "There is an urgency with this team now. We're hungry. Last night we finally put it all together. Our toughness was there, our intensity and energy. (Winsome) Frazier knocked down some shots, (Ontario) Harper was good on the baseline, Lawrence was a beast down low."

Now these suddenly-beastly Bulldogs get to show how hungry they still are. Only, the matchups could not be much more different. Stanford started a taller lineup, at every position, and tried to play the game from sets at each end. That worked well enough for a half until State was able to accelerate the pace both ways.

Now in Duke, the Dogs see a squad more comparable in size and one which prefers to keep the tempo pegged on redline. "Everybody knows about Duke," said Roberts.

Stansbury certainly knows enough to grasp the task his team is assigned. This might not be the most physically imposing Blue Devil squad of the decade, and it's clearly not the deepest. But nobody would be surprised to see Duke once again in a Final Four. "It's remarkable what Duke has accomplished," Stansbury said.

"They don't have ten, twelve (standouts) like in the past. But for them to accomplish what they've done, playing six or seven guys is pretty remarkable."

The Blue Devils didn't destroy Delaware State in their Friday round, but the 57-46 victory was never in any real doubt and gave Coach Mike Krzyzewski his 65th NCAA tourney victory, tying him with former North Carolina coach Dean Smith for the record. Duke is on a four-game win streak, having taken the ACC Tournament, and they are 7-0 on neutral courts this season.

The Devils are also back to full-strength with guard Sean Dockery back from injury. "He's getting all his pieces," Stansbury said. Particularly in the backcourt that sets Duke's pace. Guard J.J. Reddick, a national Player of the Year favorite, comes in averaging 22.3 points with 116 three-point goals. Guard Daniel Ewing has 63 treys, second on his team but more than any Bulldog and a 15.0 point average.

Though the Devils thrive on perimeter shooting, and in that sense might be compared to a Florida or Arkansas, Stansbury doesn't see any real counterpart from the SEC this year. "Nobody shoots it like Reddick when he's one, and Ewing is great getting the ball into the lane."

The key as Stansbury sees it is forward Shelden Williams, averaging 15.5 points and 11.2 rebounds. He's not limited to low-post play at all, instead going out to the free throw line or beyond so the offense can swirl all around. "They're going to spread it out around that big guy," Stansbury said. "I don't know if Kentucky, Alabama, or Florida spread it out like that. They stretch you out.

"Defensively what separates them from anyone in our league is they play man-to-man and press you more than most people do." Thus Stansbury sees a premium on steady guard work Sunday, and would love to see his backcourt limit turnovers to the same nine as against Stanford. If the Bulldogs can make it a game on the baseline, it might tilt the court in favor of what looks like the better rebounding club. "If you look hard that's one of the stats we're better at," Stansbury admitted.

For his part Roberts is looking forward to taking on Williams, who he met a couple of summers ago when both competed in a USA team tryout. "A time we went at it," he said. Both big men are averaging double-doubles, something not often found in early-round NCAA draws. "It's going to be a tough battle. Two guys just going after it from the jump, so it should be a great matchup."

The backcourt battles will be just as critical. "They've got some great guards," said Harper, who will have to defend guards and forwards by turn. "We've got guards ourselves. But we have to try to chase (Reddick) out of his shot, he's got range as soon as he's across halfcourt. We have to make him work and not let it be easy for him."

By the same token the Bulldog guards had to put offensive pressure on their counterparts. Stansbury wasn't giving away any tactical secrets by telling media "The key again is Frazier." As in, the senior guard hitting shots as he did against Stanford. Frazier canned six treys in the win, his best effort since breaking a foot bone on January 8. In fact Frazier took only one shot that was not from beyond the arc (it was good), and his long-range accuracy turned the game around with 20 points in just 24 minutes.

"I rested him last night," Stansbury said, because Sunday Frazier will not only need to shoot and score but be able to chase Devil guards all over the court. For that matter, the 90-minute evening practice at the Coliseum wasn't strenuous at all. "None of us will do much, we need our energy more tomorrow."

The Bulldogs ought also to have all their depth to call on. Stansbury forsees chasing Reddick not just with Frazier but backup Dietric Slater. In the post Marcus Campbell, who returned to action with a vengence Friday night, will be used in timely matchups against smaller Duke postmen. "If you have a 7-0 coming off the bench with that energy, it opens up everything from outside to inside," Roberts said. "We're counting on him to give us that same kind of energy."

"We're as healthy as we've been in two months because we have all our bodies on the floor," Stansbury said. Just as importantly, the Bulldogs appear to be in the best emotional health of the entire season. And it could not come at a better time, Power said.

"All the adversities, all the injuries, guys being on the team or not on the team. All year it's been a roller-coaster and it's all starting to come together now. We're desperate to get a win, we do not want to go home. We're having fun playing with each other right now."

Stansbury certainly expects his team to be primed for Sunday's showdown. "How much better does it get? What better opportunity would you want? Two #1 seeds (Duke and North Carolina) are here, that's the only motivation you need. We might not make a shot tomorrow. But the thing you expect is an unbelievable effort defending and rebounding. (And) when we shoot it we're awful good."

Just how good the Bulldogs will have to be to get by Duke and on into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996 is anyone's guess. State might have to be even better than against Stanford. But then, that's what postseason play is all about. "We just have to take the same mental focus as last night and put it all on the court," Harper said. "Our season's been up and down but all the records and stats don't matter right now."

Roberts agrees. "I think mainly if we just continue to play like we did last night and ride the momentum on out, that will be a great way to end a senior season."

Gene's Page Top Stories