No, nobody in Humphrey Coliseum is content, much less happy, with the early-season situation and what five losses by mid-January might portend for post-season opportunity. But neither is their panic in the ranks, least of all the coach's office. Rick Stansbury has been here before, with all sorts of squads. Three years ago with Mario Austin in the post and a veteran backcourt State lost its first three SEC games. The 2002 team which set the school wins record (one more than the SEC title team even) opened 2-3 and both victories required overtime.
Besides, given how all but a couple of conference clubs have struggled just to get out the metaphorical gate, and how one of the 3-0 pair will be bubble-burst soon enough, a 1-2 debut hardly merits doom and gloom. 9-7 might well win this West race, though I won't debate if it signals the Division is competitive or just poor. The issue of more immediate-MSU concern is whether this Bulldog team has what it takes to break even over their 16-game schedule. That jury isn't just out, it's gone on a very long lunch.
Even the best judge of the situation has an ambiguous early verdict after State's ten-point defeat at Ole Miss. "It's fragile," Stansbury admitted. He was talking about his club's confidence as much as other things, like lineup and gameplan. The coach was also speaking in the context of the first 15 days of SEC play, which conclude with a home game against 2-0 LSU and a trip to Vanderbilt's house of horrors. "It's a huge stretch for a young team. You have to keep things in perspective."
Easy to say, difficult to do. Five years of post-seasoning surely have a way of spoiling folk and adjusting perspective, to put things mildly. So do streaks. One would think the Bulldogs have never left Oxford with a loss judging by some posted reactions. How soon we forget that much, much better State squads have been beaten there; and even those wins in 2003-05, when the Dogs were clearly superior, only came after serious home-team efforts and strong MSU comebacks. The gym is a blight but the teams that live there can play as hard as anyone and usually do.
That said, a lot of us do have a small problem with the way State lost both this game and their streaks (three in Oxford, eight overall). As guard Dietric Slater said honestly and painfully, "They played harder than we did."
We should keep that statement in some kind of context. Slater was not saying the Dogs did not play the game hard. From my courtside seat it looked as if State did give an effort…an respectable one to my eye. If a more experienced and more polished Bulldog team plays at that level, against that opposition, they win the game.
But this team is not experienced enough and nowhere nearly polished to the point of winning SEC road games with just respectable effort. Look at the box score again: team shooting was practically even and rebounding literally even. That wasn't and probably isn't sufficient for the 2006 team. They have to do those things better to beat teams until other aspects, especially on offense, improve dramatically.
"To win on the road you have to defend and rebound," Stansbury said. "And we've been pretty consistent with that over the years." True, and indicative of how past teams played with consistent effort. The problem right now is that the Bulldog efforts are, oh, maybe ‘dispersed' is a good word for it. That is, State energies aren't as focused and fused as is necessary over the course of a 35-second shot clock. And when things break down the other team takes advantage.
It's not easy to explain without coming across critically of personnel, which isn't intended. Youth cannot be held accountable for what they just don't know to do consistently and efficiently yet. Everybody at this level has to learn how technique improves talent, and everybody progresses at different paces. Which is a long-way-around to simply say we should not expect the 2006 team to defend as the 2004 and '05 squads could. It is always a way to say expect similarly frustrating days this season.
How many? That depends on how quickly they can get their individual and collective acts together. And THAT takes us to the other fundamental problem Stansbury has faced. Saturday, for one of the rare times this winter, he actually had the entire scholarship roster both dressed-out and un-suspended. You're as tired of hearing it as the coach is of saying it and me recounting it, but not having an intact lineup to practice, much less play, for an extended stretch crimps everyone's improvement. True, Jamont Gordon is State's best player at three positions. Equally true, how can teammates know how to ‘play off' him when the guy is shuttling between a trio of jobs each week?
The good news is that as long as Jamall Edmondson can get and stay healthy the backcourt can get things together faster. It would take longer if State had to defend on a freshman like Richard Delk, who is painfully realizing how physical this league is allowed to be. Oh, he'll be fine with time, but for now a senior like Edmondson will fit back in more easily for everyone with a healed Delk able to offer a fresh burst of energy off the bench. Just like the original October plan, in other words. And then Gordon can stay in his ideal position, roaming and stretching defenses and creating gaps for shots or drives. He can play point well, absolutely, but it also tires the kid down too soon and takes a toll on team scoring and stopping.
I really have to think this was most of what Slater meant in a very strong post-game statement. The full quote: "I think after this game coach is going to realize he needs to make some changes in certain places and certain things. Before we play LSU everything will be situated by that time." This can be spun second-hand all sorts of other ways, of course, including intimations of team dissension that have blossomed since revelation of the team-minus-one meeting a week ago, when the (my description) enigmatic Walter Sharpe was pointedly excluded.
Let's be clear on two corresponding facts. Sharpe is by far the most gifted offensive post-player, maybe player-period, on this roster. He is also the most frustrating figure both off and on the court. How do you figure a guy who busts his academic butt summer and fall to regain eligibility and, after a 10-point, eight-rebound return against Troy promptly gets suspended for two games? Or who gets benched for the SEC opener? And even when he plays at Ole Miss he further frustrates by both forcing foolish individual plays on the offensive end while not making a decent defensive move on the other. Good thing I'm on press row, not the MSU bench, or Sharpe is taking a seat after that absurd ‘lob' flipped sort-of in Charlie Rhodes' direction on a fastbreak when the Dogs really, really needed two sure points. We could be generous and say that only reflects his rusty state of tune…only to recall why that is so in the first place.
Ah, well, that's why college coaches get paid really big bucks, to deal with all sorts of personalities. And for the record, Stansbury has had to mix some pretty explosive personnel-ities over the years that could've blown up in his face. That they didn't is a credit to clever coaching and coaxing alike, thus reason to allow this team more time to meld.
And, to mess up. Goodness knows they're all but guaranteed more of that. Still rebuilding should be faster, if not necessarily easier, if the coach has all his pieces available and settles into more of a lineup rhythm. Not that he's enjoying the learning process too much, either. "With youthful teams you have to handle things different," Stansbury said. "It's a fine line with how much I prod them and how patient I am when they make mistakes." He's said that before in this season; I suspect he'll say it again, soon.
In an unintended way State might actually benefit from the erratic duty-roster. As in, all the zone defense the Dogs played in November/December. Typically at this point of a season State is just getting comfortable in zone-sets, having played man in pre-SEC games. That calendar has been turned entirely around. Stansbury figures he's played 80% zone up to now, to the point the players have begun to mentally lean on that scheme too much. Certainly they don't play standard man-to-man with the zest and efficiency of previous squads. "But I do think it has gotten better the last two-three weeks," the coach said. "A lot better. Three weeks ago we couldn't guard anybody."
Now, they're guarding most folk decently well and will get better, yet also have earned confidence in ability to zone as needed. It's an expensive benefit, though, because it's come at the price of some losses when teams shot the Dogs up from outside.
You'll likely notice I am not discussing State's most glaring problem. Turnovers, of course. It's because I just don't think there is a whole lot to be done about that this season; that we're going to have to live with erratic, often adventuresome ball-handling. Heck, any day now I expect to hear some frustrated cynic bemoan Gary Ervin's absence. In jest, of course, as in time these pups will not only protect the ball but get it to the right places at the right times. Until then I recommend a couple of Bayer's best with the halftime Coke.
Stansbury is trying to strike balance here, too, stressing how important every single possession can be…and then telling these pups not to let one bad play affect them. It's a necessary coaching contradiction and you never know which sentence the kids recall. A fine line, indeed, especially with a team that only once has posted more assists than turnovers. Rick probably pops Advil in pregame and B.C. powders at halftime, but he's generally kept calm so far. Though I'd bet that blistering second-half talk to Sharpe Saturday would've made great satellite audio.
Thank goodness for Rhodes, who not only is maturing as a ballplayer at each end of the floor but showing some encouraging signs of personal growth. Such as when he tried to take blame for the loss on himself after scoring 24 points. He took losing to the Rebels very hard, and talked to media how much he wants to win his first championship at any level. Yes, the soph still has a ways to go in both aspects of his student-athlete life, but Rhodes is going in the right directions and has a lot of teammates who want to keep him on that track. Because we can all see what the younger half of this roster is capable of becoming in time.
That really is the theme of this 2005-06 season. Time. As in, developing, maturing, learning, blending. I made some folk mad last month with a post that, after the first eight, nine games, I was thinking of a 16-win regular season and NIT berth where the growing Dogs could have chances to keep playing and winning. Maybe I'm leaning too much on the example of 2001, but the similarities are easy enough to see from my old dog's vantage point. Fortunately these Dogs could care less what I or anyone else says or predicts. Bless ‘em, they are playing for themselves and learning what it takes to compete and eventually contend in the SEC.
Better, I haven't heard a single public-comment complaint. They handle defeat with anger, not acceptance, and that's another encouraging so-far sign. Especially with this week's schedule of games that surely will list State as heavy under-Dogs. I mean, Dwayne Curtis is a fine addition to the Rebel roster but he ain't no Glen Davis. And as hostile as the indoor-swamp can be, Memorial Gym's unique setup has bumfuzzled championship squads. So what, seems to be the attitude. "We're just going to work hard," said Gordon. "We've lost two games to good teams, we're going to go back to practice and work hard and come back stronger."
"Getting Jamall back with this offense will be a turning point for us," said Rhodes. "We just have to learn from this loss, and Wednesday is going to be a major turning point."