Which is: this team is so unaware of itself, of its strengths and weaknesses alike, that they simply don't know any better than to keep playing the game. Put another way, they still don't know what they don't know. And for the moment at least such ignorance can be blissful when it's time for a pup who doesn't yet appreciate what college pressure is to take a must-make shot. Their youthful elbows are a lot looser, their rookie throats un-tightened.
Bless ‘em, such self-unconsciousness can't last much longer and certainly not beyond the opening of SEC season. But for the moment it's a heckuva fun thing to observe. If, say, last year's senior-laden squad had played this sort of pre-SEC ball we'd have reason for outright anxiety. This year? While not discounting the honest fact that State looks far, so far from a team with NCAA credentials, we equally must recognize that the way these Dogs have been able to win six games and keep the other two competitive despite woeful shooting is reason to smile.
Or let's try this angle. While we'd all rather see well-run gameplans and efficiency on each end of the court, there's something to be said for winning games almost in spite of themselves. As long as they don't make career-long habits of this, that is. Then we'd have a problem.
Rick Stansbury has had his own problems maintaining patience. As he said after one of those losses, "I don't know where to start with our team." Saturday, after a remarkable rally and dominating overtime effort, the coach was essentially saying the same thing, if more bemused than baffled this time. "Amazing," was his concise and correct evaluation of how State, down 15 points and all but dead on the court, went on an 18-3 run to force the extra period and then blew Troy out in OT. Amazing indeed.
And what did the Dogs think of their amazing comeback win? Instead of patting their own backs, Dietric Slater spoke for many when he said "I didn't think they had any business being up by 15." Hmmm, now that I think of it that might have been the most encouraging comment to come out of the win, as an acknowledgement that State isn't supposed to trail a Troy on the home court in the first place and such rallies oughtn't be necessary. But of course Slater is an older Dog who understands how games ought to be played and won.
Certainly Slater's return from the ankle sprain was timely, as without him that game is lost. Sure, he often looked like the out-of-control whirlwind of the previous two seasons…but those were just the kind of moves State needed in this particular matchup. "He made Dietric plays," is how Stansbury put it, "not plays you draw on a chalkboard." Again it's only fair to agree that such plays will be far harder to find against a sound defense, which Troy most definitely did not have. Yet also again such stuff was just right for the moment and a perfect complement to the sort of squad Stansbury is working with.
And what a mix of manpower that is. I can't help comparing the hoops Dogs to their gridiron brethren in this sense, that Stansbury has the sorts of individual play-makers Sylvester Croom craves. The contrast is that while our melding football team is developing Dogs who can make things happen one-on-one, Stansbury's current challenge is getting his makers-playing as a unit. It's going to take more time, obviously, but the advantage basketball has had up to now is being able to get by on timely individual initiatives. (Stress on the ‘up to now' part, since if Troy chunks in one more trey we're almost surely writing from a less amused perspective.)
I do mean the amused part because as noted earlier this has been an entertaining three weeks at The Hump. Not just the overtime action, but all the regulation minutes whether shots were made or missed. This team is so new—even the veterans are in new full-time roles—that each game so far has been like seeing an entirely different team. Oh, wait, it's not just the new-ness. It's because Saturday, for the first time, Stansbury had the intact scholarship roster available. Not everyone played and we'll be asking about Jerrell Houston's status this week. But the fact is that State was more or less shorthanded for seven games with serious complications to starting and subbing jobs.
In fact, against Troy "we were able to sub, that's new for us," Stansbury said. Nobody had to pull an iron-Dawg act this time, though all-everything frosh Jamont Gordon did put in 38 minutes. It's a measure of how many other good ‘dramatic' angles there were to the game for us reporters that Gordon's marvelous performance went kinda un-reported. Hey, he was one assist away from only the second triple-double in program history, and tied for the scoring lead at 17 points. Then again maybe this lack of headlines means that in just eight games Gordon has become such a consistent performer in all aspects that great games are already being taken for granted, reckon? At the risk of over-hyping eight college games, I'm tentatively marking Gordon for membership in an elite club of such MSU swingmen as Ray White, Terry Lewis, and Greg Carter. Oh, alright, you too, Marcus Grant. No need ticking off a coach.
Gordon is just the brightest light in this rookie class, and the most consistent. But let's recall that young Reggie Delk's fearless freshman shooting tipped the balance against Santa Clara a week ago…and he forced that Trojan gunner to lift his game-winning try a bit high and short at the regulation horn. I'm convinced had Richard Delk been healthy State beats Northwestern without any OT, as Jamall Edmondson was absolutely and unavoidably gassed in regulation. As long as that ‘hot spot' on Delk's foot doesn't heat back up we'll start seeing a darn good young point guard get more and more minutes.
I'll withhold comment on Vernon Goodridge and Bernard Rimmer a while longer, other than to note they're both excellent athletes and F.D.A.-warning label raw basketball players. With Walter Sharpe successfully re-eligibilized that's not a big concern any more, though we'll also keep an eye on he and Charles Rhodes for further proof of developing maturity on and off the court. I don't mean to sound skeptical, it's just a lotta seasons of experience speaking. They could realistically become the most potent paint-pair of Stansbury's tenure…or just as easily slip off the tracks, which is why even the coach at times will add unprompted "if nothing happens" when talking of the two. So far, so good, and we can be satisfied with that.
In the interests of full situational-disclosure, this is a good time to point out some interesting (if that's the word) statistics. Going into the eighth game in the SEC standings the Bulldogs ranked last in: scoring, field goal shooting, three-point shooting, assists, and assist/turnover ratio. Repeat, 12th out of 12, and given what we know now of how the SEC stacks up nationally there's obvious reason for concern if not pending panic.
Even leading the league in both scoring and shooting defense isn't quite what it seems since the strength of State's schedule is well-reported. There is no positive way to break such numbers down, and heaven knows I've had lots of experience. But, there are reasons. Take an almost-entirely-new team, then remove various parts for both practice and play, and face foes eager to score a SEC scalp. Suddenly just being competitive is commendable; any success under the circumstances should be hailed.
The irony is that after three weeks of action, Stansbury finds himself in almost in another pre-season setting with the returns of Slater, Delk, and Piotr Stelmach from injury and Sharpe from academic purgatory. "As funny as it sounds it's starting over again with all the kids," he said. But the coach does have the benefit of real game-tape to apply when correcting the kids' green-gaffes, and the pups now appreciate just how fast, hard, and decisively the game is played at this level. Those are things that can't be simulated in intrasquad work.
Stansbury's first order of business is getting back to his preferred form of defense. Eight games in zones has been a necessary strain, but with the bodies back State was able to go more man-to-man Saturday and it made a late-game difference. And of course already knowing how to zone, something not usually taught until December anyway, is bound to be useful. Still, "We've got to get better guarding in man, and get better in all our off stuff. Try to get some chemistry. Try to get some roles. Getting these guys back will allow us to do that some now." It's worth wondering of course if establishing roles might be a bit more fractious at this point since a few guys have gotten used to their minutes.
Yet the main theme holds true. The Bulldogs have been able to simply survive the early schedule and win six games without playing truly good team basketball. In the process several individuals have earned some legitimate confidence, without obscuring all the areas where they must get much, much better before SEC season. Oh, and speaking of the league, while it's true most of our conference kin are taking losses we shouldn't forget that others are playing tougher out-of-conference schedules than State has. Just a cautionary note for now.
With school out for the holidays and the Dogs about to hit the road for a while, Stansbury has exclusive call on their attention. He also has all his parts, assuming Edmondson's groin was not re-strained too badly. Thus State moves into a new season-phase, and if it is more serious with higher stakes in the long term it is also the necessary next step in maturing a ball team. At the same time, I can't help thinking that even as they grow up these kids will still find ways to keep things frantic. And fun.
But…how about taking care of business in regulation play? Overtime plays havoc with deadlines.