Bulldogs Prepare For Vol's Visit

Admittedly he has to think back a while to recall any similar stretch. That's what a run of successful seasons can do; dim the memories of how to cope with struggling streaks. Still Rick Stansbury acknowledges that the program has been here before.

"We've had to rebound in the past," the Bulldog coach said Monday morning, discussing the Mississippi State mindset coming off the weekend defeat at Vanderbilt. The loss, MSU's fourth-straight, dropped the Dogs to 1-4 SEC and 11-7 overall after just two weeks of conference competition. It is the program's longest losing streak since February of 2000.

And it's nothing that Stansbury has not dealt with during his eight years in charge. Sometimes the team has indeed ‘rebounded', such as in 2002. "I think we started off 0-3 with a team that had a lot of expectations and we went ahead and won the West." And other times, such as in '00, the Bulldogs kept struggling all the way to season's end. It's still too early for the coach to openly ponder which route this 2006 team is most likely to pick, or to let his squad even think along those lines.

"We'll take them one-at-a-time," Stansbury said. "Yes, the psyche when you lose, especially with a young team, it's different. Experienced teams know there's a lot left to play, young teams don't. That's a challenge in itself."

Not that these pups need any more of a challenge than they face in their next matchup. Come Wednesday evening State hosts a Tennessee team Stansbury called "One of the hottest teams not only in the conference but in college basketball." The Volunteers (12-3, 3-1 SEC) are still celebrating a homecourt victory over #2-ranked Florida that put them atop the Eastern Division. And Stansbury is not counting on any sort of hangover coming to campus with the Vols, even if it was "probably one of the biggest wins in that school's history the last four-five years for sure.

"And it's not like it was a huge upset, Tennessee playing as well as they are. They beat Texas at Texas by 20 points. It's no fluke." The Vols also showed their own ‘rebound' abilities as they shook off losses at LSU and Memphis to outlast a Gator team looking to move into the poll-penthouse. "Bruce (Pearl) has done a tremendous job. He's got them playing a different style, shooting the ball. And they cause problems in different ways with their ability to play small and shoot the ball."

It really isn't a sizable squad that State expects to match up with Wednesday. Other than 6-10 center Major Wingate the Vols go with what Stansbury called a four-guard sort of set headlined by hot-shots C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton. "And their ‘power forward was a point guard," he added, speaking of 6-4 Dane Bradshaw, who gets as many rebounds as he hands out assists now. For that matter even Wingate plays more like a fast forward than a true pivotman, giving the Vols a uniquely agile lineup at both ends of the floor.

Or more accurately, all over the floor. "They're the best pressing team in the conference," Stansbury said, and UT does indeed lead the league in turnover margin. Florida has the reputation for pressure defense but State's coach notes that the Gators really rely more on half-court work. The Vols do it end-to-end. "They're the only team that's committed to it," he said. "Tennessee is not a huge team so they're off-setting that with their commitment to pressing. It fits their ability, a bigger team would probably not be as effective." Such as Bradshaw, for example. "He's got the advantage for 80 feet of that court."

Such descriptions can't make State folk very comfortable considering a matchup of a strong pressing defense against a Bulldog team that far-and-away leads the league in losing the ball. MSU is committing over 18 turnovers per game already, and without having faced serious end-to-end pressure for significant stretches. The Dogs lost the ball 11 times in the first half at Vanderbilt, often unforced, and as a result fell behind by 20 points in the period. They finished with just 52 points for the day.

For that matter State hasn't hit 70 points since returning from their Puerto Rico tournament trip. There' no mystery why, the coach says. "Our problem is turning the ball over too much, we're too inefficient in halfcourt offense. We have to find a way to improve in those areas."

The Bulldogs have turned in some more-efficient efforts in spots. Such as the unofficial ‘third quarter' at Nashville when they managed to outscore the Commodores and look competitive in the process. That was a good sign, said Stansbury. "Because we didn't turn the ball over and were much more efficient offensively. But you can't do that for ten minute stretches or even 30 minute stretches. You have to do it for 40 minute stretches." And this team hasn't been able to turn in an efficient 40 since SEC season tipped off, even in the debut win over Arkansas. Stansbury remains realistic about just how effective this offense can ultimately be. "We're going to turn the ball over," he admits. "But we have to be able to limit it as much as we can.

"Our margin for error is slim-to-none. For us to have a chance we've got to be able to get better in those areas. Now we're turning around and facing the best pressing team in the conference."

Who State sends against the Tennessee pressure initially is not quite set, yet. As suspected, at Nashville a healthy—or at least healthier—Jamall Edmondson re-joined the starting lineup for the first time since December 21. The senior took over at point and joined junior Dietric Slater to form MSU's most veteran available backcourt, and allowed freshman Jamont Gordon to return to the wings. Then the ball went all the wrong ways for twenty frustrating minutes.

Stansbury doesn't blame Edmondson at all. "That's not Jamall's fault, he's lost a lot of conditioning. We just weren't as effective." This included the series State didn't lose the ball directly, but still took inefficient shots. It was a true team effort, in every sense. Still the coaching staff wants to get in a good day's practice before figuring who needs to start Wednesday.

"We haven't made that decision yet," Stansbury said. "It's obvious (the Saturday lineup) wasn't as effective getting the ball up the court, pushing it and getting into stuff. We'll have to make that decision." Presumably the staff is also debating the substitution patterns not only in the backcourt but closer to the goal. Soph forward Charles Rhodes is set, of course, and was the lone bright spot in Saturday's setback. How much more he could do with some help in the paint is the topic of off-court discussion. The play of frosh Vernon Goodridge is tempting to over-rate as most of his best efforts came after the ‘Dores had the game locked up and their own defense was relaxed. Still, the rookie center/forward is the future of the position and playing time presumably is the best spur to faster development.

By the same token such considerations reflect the larger challenge State faces not just this week but for the rest of SEC season. Yes, Dog teams have bounced-back from slow starts before, Stansbury said. "What's different is having to rebound with a whole young team. It's not like I'm sitting here with a team that had those expectations and a lot of experience. "I knew it was going to be tough early, going to Ole Miss, Florida, Vanderbilt, and playing LSU. Those aren't easy games. When you have to turn around and face Tennessee, who's playing better than anyone."

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