Stansbury: "It's Been A Total Adjustment"

His job title may be Coach. But as a still-green Bulldog squad prepares to open Southeastern Conference season, it's understandable if Rick Stansbury feels more like Dad both on and off the court. "It's helped me having children at home to be patient with this team!" Poppa Stansbury said Thursday. "Because it has been a total adjustment."

An ongoing adjustment for kids (those wearing full uniforms) and coach. After thirteen games all are reasonably satisfied with Mississippi State's 10-3 record, but they also know things are about to get much more challenging. That next phase starts this Saturday evening as State hosts Arkansas in Humphrey Coliseum in the league lidlifter for both. Tip-off is 7:00 with a regional telecast by FSN and Sunshine Network.

And while he has no plans to start Isaac, Noah, nor Luke this weekend, at times Stansbury sounds as if the varsity State roster isn't all that much older or experienced than his own boys. It has forced the coach to be much more adaptable than in any of his previous seven seasons. "It's obvious our team is still a team very much in transition. Naturally I'd like to be a little farther along than we are, having a better understanding of our team. But we're where we are, it's a learning experience for us, not every game but every possession."

That learning experience is about to be accelerated dramatically. After a week-off the Bulldogs follow their SEC debut with consecutive road trips, to Florida and Mississippi. It's a fast and furious initiation for the largest portion of this roster. Many Dogs will be seeing their first league action ever, and the rest getting their first SEC starts. Moreover, the only varsity Bulldog with a SEC tipoff to his credit, senior guard Jamall Edmondson, is likely to miss Saturday's game with lingering muscle-pull problems.

"Right now he will not play," Stansbury reported. "Basically he hasn't done anything since the 22nd of December. He's our leading scorer and brings something this team needs, experience, he gives us a guy that can settle things down at times. And no question he's a threat to score."

Thus State opens the 2006 conference campaign with the rawest roster in the league, maybe in the land. Not only that, Edmondson's absence hurts where this lineup needs experience most, at the point. "Of all positions on the court that's the one you'd love to get some consistency," Stansbury said. Then again, it is just the latest in a two-month run of roster shufflings. Or as the coach said, "It's been somebody off-and-on all year long." By now the State staff has gotten used to waiting right up to game time to see who is healthy and un-suspended and taking things from there. Why expect the situation to change now?

Still the coach can hope. "It means we're still trying to just figure out who can do what. Then who can play the best with each other, and what do you do to hide weaknesses and play to strengths. Those are things we're still in transition with, where do all the pieces fit and what parts play well together."

A more positive development has come from the calendar. Once back from their Puerto Rico trip and Christmas break, the Bulldogs have been on campus for almost two weeks now with only one game—a home win over George Mason—to break up a lot of quality time on the practice floor. It couldn't have come at a better point in the season.

"We needed it," Stansbury said. "Once we get into the season with a veteran team we don't like layoffs, but with this team and considering all the injuries just to practice some is more important than playing games. We've had a good week of preparation and hopefully we'll carry that into Saturday." He also expects the rest of the Dogs to be healthy and available for this game, with a whole Friday ahead for more injuries or indiscretions such talk is obviously risky.

No wonder Stansbury has had to apply poppa-like patience with his other ‘family.' He notes that recent years State either had veteran-dominated teams or enough older Dogs with winning experience to help fit new kids into the mix efficiently. This year? "We're learning on the fly." And that has meant keeping a tight leash on his own style in both practices and games.

"Besides being youthful, we've had so many injuries and that's slowed things up too. We've been forced to do some things we don't like to do, but that's the way it's going to be all year long. We'll have to make adjustments with this team game-to-game and possession-to-possession."

One thing Stansbury doesn't like doing is playing lots of zone defense. He's a man-to-man man, largely because it is the best way to get consistently intense effort out of players of any age. And as the SEC stats of the last five years so, State plays man-defense very well. But depth and experience issues forced the Bulldogs into zone sets all November and most of December. Only in the last couple of games did the Dogs get into traditional man-to-man, and they haven't played that as well as demanded.

Again it is depth and inexperience showing. The all-rookie backcourt of Richard and Reginald Delk and Jamont Gordon is athletic, able, and willing. But they also are on the court more than most kids should be required, which shows by the ends of each half. Still their efforts and abilities are obvious and encouraging.

"They've played a lot of minutes," Stansbury agreed. "They're averaging over 30 minutes and that's unusual, but it's going to get them ready. No matter what (freshmen) think they have no idea of what they're getting into, but the experience will help them adjust some." Besides, he added, this early hard initiation will pay off in years to come. For now State will accept the trade-offs in youthful mistakes.

The whole team has held their own in other aspects. State's shooting defense and rebounding have been good, often very good, in pre-SEC play. The frontcourt of forward Charles Rhodes and center Wesley Morgan are hitting the boards well at each end and converting lots of second-chance buckets. When not suspended to a seat, Walter Sharpe has been instant inside help off the bench. And alternates such as guard Dietric Slater, Piotr Stelmach, and Michael Boler have played their roles as needed.

Not only that, but for all their roster ins-and-outs the team has been able to win double-digit games and often by making the clutch plays either at the very end or in overtime. So they have gotten some real testing already that should pay off as the schedule gets far more serious. Stansbury certainly sees opportunity in a league that has yet to establish a clear pecking order, too.

"I really think if our team was healthy and we could get some rhythm, our team has a chance. We've got good young talent and other guys capable of stepping up. The way the league is it gives you hope of that happening."

Whatever happens, the coach figures he will have to keep up the father-figure act for a while. Who knew having his own kids would be such a help in coaching another bunch of pups?

"No question it's a fine line with prodding the team and being patient with them," Stansbury said. "And it's a daily thing, which will be in progress all year long with this team."

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