That's one way of looking at things, though finding anyone else to fault for a 11-9 record and 1-6 SEC mark would be interesting. Still the coach can't be blamed for attempts at maintaining Mississippi State morale after six consecutive defeats. Especially as the Bulldogs prepare to host a Kentucky team that has bounced back strong from their own stumbles and comes to campus on a winning streak. The inter-Division matchup is Wednesday evening, 7:00, with regional telecast on Jefferson-Pilot.
The Wildcats (14-6, 4-2 SEC) are fresh from a homecourt comeback victory over Arkansas that has them tied for second in the Eastern Division and only a game in back of Tennessee. "They're coming off a big win and I'm sure they're playing with a lot of confidence," Stansbury said. "They've won four in a row and two on the road. And they know we're struggling. So it will be very difficult for us Wednesday night."
Then again, this matchup can't be that much more challenging than any the Bulldogs have faced their last three weeks. After knocking off Arkansas in the SEC debut, State suffered five sound beatings by double-digit margins. In that sense then a 65-59 loss at Alabama this past Saturday was progress, but at the same time the defeat dropped the Dogs below 1-5 Auburn to the bottom rung of the West ladder. It's almost-unprecedented territory for Stansbury's program, certainly in this decade.
The coach can still be objective about such things. "We all understand there's some situations that just can't be prevented," he said. Specifically, the pre-SEC disruptions caused the injuries to both point guards and resulting shuffles in the backcourt that prevented a rebuilding ball club from developing what he calls rhythm. "Those are things that caused our team to not function as well. Then we had to dismiss a kid we thought would be our best inside scorer." As in showing talented-but-erratic postman Walter Sharpe the Coliseum door two weeks ago. "Those are things you don't plan on. "But we can't make excuses or feel sorry, we just have to find a way to keep working hard. And if it takes moving people around that's what we'll do."
Mississippi State certainly made January moves, most notably playing small forward Jamont Gordon at the point. The rookie started on-point three games and even now that senior Jamall Edmondson and freshman Richard Delk are healthy Gordon is still spending as much time in the backcourt as nearer the goal. It has taken a toll on his offensive efficiency with Gordon's shooting dropping off and turnovers multiplying. Gordon had 18 points at Alabama and shot a bit better, 7-of-13 overall, but also went 0-of-4 at the three-point arc and had seven turnovers against four assists.
It's a necessary trade-off according to Stansbury. "The minuses are very obvious!" he said. "The plus is that he's a terrific player and going to be really good for our program in this league. I don't think we've ever had a freshman in my 16 years as productive as Jamont." It's true, as Gordon not only is leading State in scoring but is a stout factor on the backboards and on defense. While his shot-selection can be debated, Stansbury has full faith in Gordon.
"As he gains more experience he's just becoming a better player. We've asked him to do a lot of things and moved him around a lot, and that's never easy on anybody. Particularly for a guy that hasn't done well. But he's met the challenge. He's had some difficult times but he's never run from the challenge. Playing at the point will make him better down the road."
The head coach didn't say Monday morning if he plans to stick with the same lineup started in the past two games. The Bulldogs opened in a four-guard set that athletically matched up better, or should have, with a modestly-sized Tennessee team last Wednesday. But at Tuscaloosa, against an Alabama lineup dominated by three superb big men on the baseline, Stansbury stuck with the same ‘small' team. Edmondson took the point with Reginald Delk at off-guard and both Gordon and Dietric Slater as the swingmen, leaving soph forward Charles Rhodes alone in the paint as the center-of-sorts.
Results were mixed. Alabama's edge in total rebounds was just 42-35, yet the Tide also outscored State 19-6 in second chance points. But on the whole the Dogs played better defense, particularly in the second half before foul trouble arose, and held the Tide to 38% shooting.
Whatever tipoff team Stansbury settles on by gametime, there is another move in the making. Disappointed by lack of scoring help for Rhodes in the post, the coach confirmed that freshman Vernon Goodridge is being booked for increased playing time. "It's obvious, we need him to help us more now than two weeks ago since the dismissal of a couple of players," the coach said. What he did not say was that other pivotmen haven't providing points, either. 18-game starting center Wesley Morgan has had problems getting good shots in league play, as has backup power forward Piotr Stelmach.
Thus Goodridge is being pressed into greater duty, and ahead of schedule. "He's got to play a different role on this team," Stansbury said. "And with that role comes more expectations. Any time a kid sees more opportunity to play they work harder and are more focused." At the same time, the coach warns that this kid—who turns 22 on February 18 but is still the ‘greenest' ballplayer on the roster by far—is still getting up to college speed.
"One thing kids always have to learn is how hard you have to work and how consistently to do it. That's been a challenge with him, but no question he's been better the last two weeks in practice. And it will carry over into games." The question is at what point in games will Goodridge enter? To Stansbury it's an irrelevant issue. "Whether he starts or not, we're limited with our numbers anyway. So it's not a huge thing. He'll play the same number of minutes whether he starts or not. What we need him to do is play more productive minutes. The more productive minutes you play the more minutes you'll get in the future. Hopefully that's something he can build on and get better as this season goes on."
And if nothing else, another body on the baseline should give Rhodes at least an occasional breather. The big soph has been a battler all SEC season, averaging almost 17 points and over seven rebounds in league competition. He's also put in almost 32 points per SEC game. Gordon sees even more duty. And there isn't much to be done about it at this point.
"That's just the lay of the land with our team right now," said Stansbury. "There's not a whole lot of options. Guys have to play minutes. It's difficult on mature guys in this league, but for young guys it's more of a challenge. Jamont is better able to handle that than most freshmen because of his physical and mental toughness."
The next challenge for all Bulldogs is a Wildcat club that has gotten back on the fast track. "They lost three in a row and everybody was ready to move out of the state of Kentucky," quipped Stansbury, who as a Bluegrass native knows what he's talking about. "But Tubby (Smith) found a way to turn them back around. Does it mean they beat people by 25-30 points a game, maybe not. But at the same time they've found a way to score better."
Kentucky hasn't been a dominating team in their current win streak, and had to rally from 18-points down at home to beat the Razorbacks yesterday. But all that matters is that the Wildcats are now winning those games, making the plays at crunch-time, and rounding back into expected form. "(Guards) Patrick Sparks is playing better for them, Rajon Rondo has found a knack to get to the hole now," Stansbury said. "They seem to have a better chemistry out there right now. Getting (NCAA-suspended center) Randolph Morris back was a chemistry change for them, but one thing he gives them they didn't have is a big presence in the low post. In this league you have to do have that, and he's created a lot more opportunities for those perimeter shooters."