State Debates Lineup, Matchups For Tide Trip

Going ‘small' against a lineup of moderate size didn't work entirely as planned. Now, with a stout frontcourt to prepare for, will Mississippi State try to match muscle-on-muscle? Coach Rick Stanbury could not say Thursday morning, as the Bulldogs set their sights on the weekend visit to Alabama.

"I don't know yet," Stansbury responded when asked if State's starting lineup could change for a second time this week. "We haven't made that decision how we're going to play."

Whatever team the coach assembles for tipoff at Tuscaloosa, he certainly hopes it does a better job than the lineup that failed to match-up well Wednesday night against Tennessee. A four-guard, one-forward scheme that looked promising on the chalkboard came up far too ‘short' on the court as State fell 88-65 to the visiting and 19th-ranked Volunteers. So, does the staff now go back to the drawing board for a different sort of squad?

"It's not a whole lot of options," Stansbury said.

But it is a very different type of team the Bulldogs will see. Where the Vols thrived on end-to-end play and outside shooting, the Crimson Tide (10-7, 3-2 SEC) tilts distinctly to the frontcourt. Even after losing Chuck Davis, the best veteran power forward in the Western Division, back on January 7, Alabama is still a potent, physical club that can bang with any opponent. The Tide, now tied with Mississippi for second in the West standings, is also rested after a midweek break.

"We're going to play a very good team," Stansbury said. "They've got one of the best frontcourts in the league, it won't be very easy for us."

Picking a lineup might not be so easy at the moment, either. The four-guard set tried Wednesday was the seventh different tipoff team for State in 19 games. At least this time the changes were proactive, not merely reactions to injuries or suspensions as has often been the 2005-06 case. And in principle going small was a natural call, especially given that State is by far the poorest ball-handling team in the league while the Vols are tops at pressure defense in the backcourt.

"We made a change, and any time you make a change at this time of the year it's going to be a gamble," Stansbury admitted. "One side of it paid off, we didn't turn the ball over." Or at least not in the first half, with just six giveaways in the period. That was dramatic progress to say the least, as Stansbury was legitimately worried a more typical starting five might not get the ball across halfcourt to take a shot.

But the gamble had a flip-side and that bit the Bulldogs badly, as Stansbury feared. "Go small and try not to turn it over, then you're probably not as efficient in halfcourt. That's where we were last night." State was able to take shots but not make them, hitting 29% in the first half and 33% for the game.

In the previous game at Vanderbilt, Stansbury went with a more typical grouping. That was largely due to the return to fuller-health of point guard Jamall Edmondson. The senior, who only scored four points at Nashville, did get 15 points last night with three treys, but also missed eight of his 13 shots from the field. Freshman guard/forward Jamont Gordon and forward-turned-center Charles Rhodes also had 15 points each, though both had to get them in hard ways. Gordon was also 5-of-13 shooting, while Rhodes got just eight shots all evening and had to score seven at the foul line as the Vols doubled-up at every chance. They could afford to as the other starter guards, Dietric Slater and Reginald Delk, were a combined 5-of-18 shooting and 2-of-11 at the arc.

Gordon and Rhodes also had to limp off the court at times, though they did return and Gordon fouled out. Stansbury said there didn't seem to be any real concerns with either. "I haven't seen them today. Jamont just had cramps again. Charles hurt his knee a little but he came back and played through that."

Stansbury does have some options in lining the Dogs up. Though 6-4, Gordon can do a forward's work even against big front lines, and Rhodes is blossoming this sophomore season in the paint. The question is whether to put 7-2 Wesley Morgan back in the pivot for tipoff or bring him off the bench. Also, the reserve-rotation saw a change as well last night with raw-but-athletic freshman center/forward Vernon Goodridge getting 13 minutes off the bench while junior veteran power forward Piotr Stelmach did not participate for the first time since November 30. Even raw-er rookie Bernard Rimmer got four late-game minutes at big forward.

Stansbury's starting picks for the backcourt will be briefly interesting but not matter too much as all the guards are certain of action. What the coach is more concerned about is their efficiency, and of course a still-sad assist/turnover ratio. Certainly State's guards have to pick and make better shots; in the last five games they are just 19-of-78 from the arc, 24.4%. By contrast an Alabama team expected to struggle on the perimeter has shot 35% in five conference contests.

And speaking of contrasts, these Bulldogs can only hope to put up a better fight and put on a better show than in the last State visit to Tuscaloosa. A year ago the Dogs were run out of the gym, 98-49, by a Tide team that went on to tie for first in the West. Stansbury is counting on short memories in his locker room.

"There's no reason for this team to remember, because it's a totally different team. That has nothing to do with us playing over their Saturday night."

Gene's Page Top Stories