"I like where our team is at. I like where it has positioned itself. I think we are playing about as well as anybody in the SEC right now. As a matter of fact, our numbers can back that up. We have won 5 in a row, 6 of our last 7 and 7 of our last 10. I don't think there is another team in the SEC that has done that. The most important thing is where our RPI is. Our RPI, after winning at South Carolina, is third best in the SEC behind Kentucky and Alabama. It is 11 which is better than Georgia's and Florida's."
You will have to face either Florida or Auburn Friday night. Talk a little about Florida first.
"Florida is the 8th ranked team in the country and is playing very well right now. They happened to lose to Alabama on a last-second shot and they lost to Kentucky on Senior Day. They could have won either of those games. There is no question we know to win a tournament we have to play the best and beat the best. Fortunately or unfortunately we may have to face the best, Florida, the first night.
"I like the matchup. Obviously, we didn't play very well at Florida. The game was over in the first three minutes. We just had to play the other 37 minutes. Florida was coming off three losses and were fired up and they were good that day. That loss won't effect this team. I can promise you the confidence level of our team is very high right now. Our kids believe they are playing very well. They are looking forward to that matchup against Florida. It is a chance to play a team that is ranked 8th or 9th in the country. If you look at the numbers all of our numbers are better than Florida's. We have two more wins, our RPI is lower, have as many SEC wins, but our kids aren't ranked."
Talk about the improvement of Mario Austin the past few weeks.
"There is no substitute for experience. I said this back at media day prior to the season, I like this team. I said the more we play, the better we were going to get. I think that is what happened with our team. I knew what Timmy Bowers could do for us. I knew that Mario Austin would be better. We saw a glimpse of what he could do in the NIT last season. We also saw a glimpse of Derrick Zimmerman in the NIT. All three of those guys have taken their games to a higher level. The solid play of Derrick Zimmerman has been a key for us. If you said before the season that he would lead the SEC in assists, there is no question that we would have taken that. He is second in steals. His assist ratio is 10 times better. He is scoring better. There is no question that Mario Austin's conditioning and confidence level is much greater."
Talk about the competitiveness of the SEC Tournament this year.
"It is very obvious, based on the way the seedings were determined on the last weekend of SEC play, that the SEC is very competitive. Of the 12 seeds, there wasn't but one seed (Alabama) that was decided prior to the last weekend of SEC play. I think the SEC Tournament is wide open this time. I think there are five or six teams that can win the tournament."
Do you like having the extra day off during the SEC Tournament?
"I think if you are needing wins to get into the NCAA Tournament, that day off doesn't help you. With our team the way it is, wins are not the most important thing now. Our RPI is where it needs to be. No matter what happens in the SEC Tournament, and I promise you we are going to play to win it, it is basically a seeding thing for us. I really think if we beat Florida, and you base decisions on numbers, then I think we are looking at a 3 seed. If we don't beat Florida, then we probably slip to a 4 seed. If we win the tournament, then we have a chance to go up to a 2 seed."
What is the mind set of this team going into the SEC Tournament compared to your other teams?
"This team has been different all year long. If there was ever an opportunity for this team to have a let down, the South Carolina game was that time. But this team doesn't do that. This team has found ways to separate things. It has found ways to only worry about things that we can control, those things between the lines. They have done a tremendous job of staying focus. I think that speaks highly of the kind of kids that we have. They are great people."
How much more important is your bench during tournament play?
"I think your bench is important in every game. I think it becomes even more important if you go into a second or third day (in tournament play). We have had very good bench play all year long. We have had different people stepping up in different games at different times. Just like at South Carolina, we went with Ontario Harper for the last 10 minutes of the game not because Marckell (Patterson) wasn't play well, but because our rhythm was pretty good with Harper. Mario got in foul trouble and Campbell gave us some very productive minutes."
You have been here 12 years, 8 as an assistant and 4 as the head coach, does this team have the best bench you have seen in those 12 years?
"No question, when you include Timmy Bowers as part of the bench, we have gotten a lot of productivity from our bench. We have guys who can come in and give us 20 and 25 minutes. I don't know if our basketball team loses very much when we play Ontario Harper. There is no question we are a better basketball team with Timmy Bowers out there."
You have been to an NCAA Tournament. Do you want to talk to your team about what it is like being in the tournament or do you want them to just go out and play ball?
"I have been with five different teams to the NCAA Tournament. One thing I am going to make sure my kids do is look around and smell the roses a little bit. It is an opportunity that a lot of good coaches and players never get a chance to do that. Of course there is a time to do that and a time to take care of business."
How about comparing this team to the 1995-1996 Final Four team.
"There was one big difference, we had one of those high-flyers, Dontae Jones, a guy who was capable of going out and getting 25 to 30 points as he did in New Orleans (in the SEC Tournament). That team was also a very experienced team, a more seasoned team with the likes of Darryl Wilson and Erick Dampier. Erick Dampier was a great defender and rebounder, but offensively was kind of raw. Plus, that team had been to the Sweet 16 the year before. They had experienced a lot of success.
"This team is different in several ways. This team has more depth and the skill level is better. I think this team can score in more ways than that Final Four team. The Final Four team was a very good offensive team that had one guy who could take over a game. We don't have a guy like that on this team, but we have a group of guys who can score in so many different ways. We have a point guard who scores differently than the Final Four team. We didn't have anyone on that team who could take the ball to the hole and create like Derrick Zimmerman can. Another thing about this team is the fact that it leads the SEC in three-point field goal defense. That fact was very evident in our last two road games against Vanderbilt and South Carolina. That is a credit to the Zimmerman's and the Bowers' and the Harper's."
Is this team as hungry as the Final Four team?
"I think going into the SEC Tournament we have proven that we are. Based on everything they have done so far, I think they are. Will we stay that way in the SEC Tournament, I guess we will have to wait and see."
The Final Four team played in the Sweet 16 the year prior to going to the Final Four. How much did that help them?
"There is no question that experience helps you. Anytime you get experience in that type environment like the Final Four team did, that helps you. This team is a young basketball team and hasn't experienced that. But this team has a different makeup. While lacking that experience might effect some teams, this team doesn't seem to be affected by many things. They seem to keep everything focused and that is big. What they did going on the road against Vanderbilt and South Carolina showed a lot of maturity."
The 1996 team couldn't sustain its accomplishment of going to the Final Four. Do you think this team can continue its success next season?
"The Final Four team lost two juniors to the NBA draft, lost a couple of seniors and lost Marcus Bullard. I have always said this, it is about players. The team with the best players almost always win. That is just the way it is. One thing every Final Four team has had in common is that they have had two NBA players on their team. To have kept that success going with the 1996 team is someone would have had to convince Erick Dampier to turn down 7 million dollars and stay in school for another year. Dampier was a Lottery pick. Because this team doesn't have many seniors and is a fairly young team, it should stay together."
What do you want to accomplish from here on out?
"Basically, we just want to continue the momentum that we currently have. We also want to win the SEC Tournament. We are just going to try and take it one game at a time."
Do you want to play Florida again?
"We got embarrassed up there. We didn't play our best game and Florida had their A game. If we get a chance to play them again, which I hope, then it will be a different game."
Talk about Mario Austin's play the last few games.
"This is the time that big-time players are supposed to step up and take control of what is going on. Austin has been a big factor for us all year, but the last few games he has been an animal under the basket. We are feeding off of that."
How much better is this team when he is playing well?
"When he is dominating down low, that opens up everything for the guys on the outside. When teams double-team him, teams find out that he can pass the ball out of the double-team."
How special is it to you for this team to make the NCAA Tournament?
"It was one of our goals to go to the NCAA Tournament. The seniors got snubbed three years ago by the selection committee even though they had 20 wins. My freshman year we weren't good. Last year, we missed out. We just re-dedicated ourselves. We got tired of people talking about Ole Miss and all the other schools and about what they were doing. We wanted to get everybody talking about the state school, which is Mississippi State. I think we have done that."
Do you think you matchup well with the other point guards in the SEC?
"I think I matchup good with all the point guards in the conference. You have to look at all the things I do for the team. I'm not the double-digit scorer like most point guards, but it's not my job. If you look at my rebounding, leadership, defense, assists, steals and block shots, I matchup well."
Is it disappointing to you that you didn't make All-SEC?
"I'm really not too big on that. As long as Mississippi State gets it name called Sunday, I'm happy."
Why did the Florida game get so out of hand so early?
"Turnovers. They got into us and the crowd got behind them and we made a lot of mistakes. Against a good team like that, you can't make a lot of mistakes and expect to win."
This team is now becoming known for its defense. How proud are you of that fact?
"That is something that Coach Stans stresses with us: Defense wins ballgames. That is something that we work at everytime that we practice. Coach Stans always gets on us about playing defense. When the individual defense breaks down, that is when the team defense has to kick in. That is something we work hard on."
How special is it for this team to know that it is going to the NCAA Tournament?
"It is very special for us, especially us seniors. It is special for the players such as Derrick and the other underclassmen because it will give them experience in the tournament."
Why do you think this team is playing so well right now, is it because the players have all accepted their roles or is it because the team is so mentality tough?
"I think both. We are tough and everybody has accepted their roles and what they can give to the team. You have to be tough to go on the road and win in this league."
Talk about Mario Austin's improved free-throw shooting the last few games.
"I think it has a lot to do with him being ready to play every game. We went to the Sanderson Center one day and we were shooting free throws and I told him why he was missing free throws. He wasn't lining his foot up with the little dot down there. He has been shooting free throws better and has taken his game to another level."
Aren't free throws more mental than anything else?
"Yes, a lot of it is mental. You have to get in a rhythm to shoot free throws."
What do you think is the reason for this team's play of late?
"I think it is that everybody has accepted their roles on the team and the togetherness of the team. We like being together on and off the court. I think that has a lot to do with us playing together the entire summer and being around each other so much. The unity on this team is tremendous right now. I think that will carry us a long way in the tournament."
I know you guys have the SEC Tournament coming up and you are focused on it, but do you also talk among yourselves about the NCAA Tournament? Is so, what you do talk about?
"The thing we say is we are not going to just settle for being in the NCAA Tournament. We want to take it to another level. My goal, when I came up here, was winning a National Championship. That may be very difficult to reach, but I'm not going to settle for less."
Other teams in the SEC have faltered down the stretch, you guys stepped it up. How have you guys kept that hunger?
"I think we just have the will to win right now. We don't want to lose anymore games."
What do you think it is going to be like for you guys in the SEC Tournament?
"I think a lot of teams are going to really come at us because we have been playing so well the past few games. We have really been focused and playing our best ball."
Do you feel less pressure because an NCAA bid has been wrapped up?
"We are not satisfied with what we have done. We are still trying to get wins."
You seemed to have taken your game to another level the last couple of weeks. Where is that play coming from?
"It is time right now that I have to step up for the ballclub. Now that we are going to tournament play, I have to step it up another level."
Are you enjoying been the guy the other players look to when trying to throw it inside?
"Yes, because I didn't touch the ball as much last year because I was a freshman."
You guys seem to have started what this team is doing right now during the NIT last year.
"I think playing in the NIT last year really helped this team coming into this year. We knew what we had to work on."
How rewarding is it to you to make 2nd team All-SEC?
"A lot because I didn't get any votes last year. I think I made a statement this year."
How important is the momentum that you guys carry into the SEC Tournament?
"It is big for us. Our confidence level is very high right now. We have a lot of guys coming off the bench who are playing well. And Mario is playing well."
This team seems to be a very hungry team. What has caused that?
"We are just more together. Everybody has set aside their own personal egos and it is all about the team. We are sharing the ball out there. I think we may have set a (school) record for most assists in a season this year."
Talk about the importance of having Coach Stansbury as your coach.
"He has been very patient with us. Coming into the season, the expectations weren't that high by most people. We won our first few games and he kept our confidence up throughout the season. When we kind of went through a little losing stretch, he stayed by our side and never got down on us. That helped us stay together, which is a big factor for how we are playing now."
There are several NCAA flags hanging from the top of the ceiling in the Hump. Now you and the other seniors will have your own NCAA flag up there. Talk about that.
"That is big for us. I look at (the flags) everyday. I haven't been able to get anything but an NIT flag. They have kind of made a joke about that. Now, we (seniors) will have an NCAA flag up there."
You seniors are the group that has helped bring this program back to NCAA play, but you are leaving it in pretty good hands, aren't you?
"Oh yeah, Z and Mario are going to take care of the program. You also have guys like Timmy Bowers, Ontario Harper and you have some freshmen who will play a lot of minutes next year. They are going to be in for a big season again next year, but we are going to try and take care of business this year while I am still here."