Struggling Dogs Prepare For Vanderbilt Trip

It's tough enough for any ball team to bounce back from three consecutive losses. It's even more difficult for a relatively young team to handle a string of setbacks early in the conference season. And now, as Rick Stansbury sees it, the challenge only grows for his Bulldogs.

"I don't think Vanderbilt is a place you like to go to heal," the Mississippi State coach said Thursday morning.

But that's the assignment for this weekend, as State travels to Nashville and visits venerable Memorial Gym for a Saturday afternoon meeting with the Commodores. Gametime is 2:45 CT, with national telecast by CBS. It's hardly the destination nor the matchup Stansbury would have picked for the Dogs at this point in their development.

This struggling point, that is. State, 11-6 overall, returns to practice this afternoon on the same court they lost 71-57 last night to visiting Louisiana State. The defeat dropped the Dogs to 1-3 in the SEC, and while they are still in a tie for fourth in the Western Division with Arkansas this is hardly the sort of start State expected. Nor, as the coach points out, can anyone count on curing their ills when venturing into the league's most unique venue.

"It's a tough place to play," said Stansbury, though he has had success in Memorial Gym. In fact State has won in their last two trips to Nashville, in 2002 and 2004. But on their last trip the eventual SEC Champions had as tough an evening as all season in pulling out a 72-69 nailbiter. This matchup is very much different, as a rebuilding State squad takes on a more poised Commodore club.

"They've got an exceptionally good team. And they're coming off a loss." While that certainly sounds contradictory, it is fact that Vanderbilt cannot be happy about an overtime defeat by visiting South Carolina. Consecutive home losses are rare at Vanderbilt and the Gamecocks have done the Dogs no favors. "We didn't need them to have any more motivation but we've got that ahead of us, too," said Stansbury. "It was probably a very disappointing loss, I don't think they anticipated that."

The Commodores are now 11-4 and 2-2 SEC, sitting third on the East Division ladder at the moment. They average 73 points on 45% shooting, and as usual thrive from the perimeter. It's a matured team that won 20 games last year and now has sights set on a NCAA bid in 2006. With Shan Foster scoring outside, Julian Terrell boarding and blocking, and Derrick Byars running the show, the ‘Dores have a great shot at getting there.

Stansbury is just now getting the full scouting report on Saturday's matchup, and he doesn't like how it reads. In particular, the coach is trying to figure the best way to defend Vanderbilt's disciplined attack. The Bulldogs, who spent November and December playing primarily zones, has gotten back into man-to-man more since the holiday break. But the squad still is not as effective on defense as needed to take on this sort of opponent.

"They're so good in their half-court offense because they run a lot of Princeton stuff, a lot of backcutting. That's difficult for a young team to defend, especially such a good team. (If we) zone, one thing Vanderbilt has always done is shoot well, especially at home. I don't know which way we think is best yet. Either way it's going to be difficult."

The staff is also wrapping up evaluations of last night's loss to the Tigers. The same fivesome opened for a third time with Jamont Gordon at point again and Dietric Slater at off-guard. Gordon, who played small forward for the first 14 games this freshman season, had some good numbers and posted his second double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Both were stout achievements under the circumstances.

But the versatile Gordon also had eight turnovers against a pair of assists. As a whole State had a 18-to-5 ratio, bad even compared to this team's SEC-worst rate of turnovers to assists. Gordon also took 16 shots, six from the arc, trying to get a struggling offense going. "We just didn't execute very well," Stansbury said after the loss. Gordon, a Nashville native, is playing point out of necessity, as senior Jamall Edmondson and freshman Richard Delk have been hampered by leg and foot problems for almost a month now.

Stansbury has no problem with Gordon's offensive aggressiveness. It's timing that is lacking. "Jamont has got to find that right tempo as a point guard. Everytime he touched the ball he tried to make too many plays. People catch on." The hope is that as Edmondson's hamstring gets better and he proves capable of filling a starter's minutes, Gordon can alternate with his ideal role and the senior get back to passing and shooting as he's capable of. That was one bright spot in the Wednesday loss as Edmondson played 29 minutes with 15 points, hitting three treys along the way.

Richard Delk got in ten minutes in relief and did have a pair of assists. But he missed both shots and lost the ball twice as well, and clearly was not up to speed. "He doesn't have that explosiveness he once had to go by people," Stansbury said. "Whether that's his foot or a loss of confidence or a combination of both, but he's not as quick as he once was." Still the coach wants more minutes out of this Delk, as well as his twin brother Reginald to regain his shooting touch. Reginald was 0-of-4 against the Tigers with three missed threes.

For that matter, Stansbury said, "We need some more bench production. Last night neither Delk scored a bucket for us. Piotr Stelmach is a guy that has off-and-on has been giving us (scoring)." Stelmach is also one of two Dogs, along with starting center Wesley Morgan, who has played at Memorial Gym. The pair had three and two minutes in relief in 2004. And still in the frontcourt, "Vernon Goodridge has to step up and play for us. He's got to get in a little rhythm." Goodridge put in nine scoreless minutes against LSU but had three rebounds. "For Vernon that's pretty good," Stansbury said.

State's front line, specifically forward Charles Rhodes, put in a good night's work with 14 points and nine rebounds against the Tigers. Morgan had more trouble with the stronger LSU frontline but Vanderbilt might be a more promising matchup for the 7-2 senior. And State did beat the nation's rebounding leader by seven boards. "The difficulty was executing in half-court offense," Stansbury said.

"We had just too many quick shots that weren't turnovers. But a bad shot is like a turnover, we had too many of those." Still the outlook is getting a bit better with Edmondson nearly up-to-speed. "He's got more of a point-guard mentality," Stansbury said. "We'll probably make that change back some."

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