The team was certainly feeling better about itself following their first success in four weeks. "I'd been stressing for the past month," sophomore forward/center Charles Rhodes said. "Now that I got my win we just need to build from this."
Such sentiment was echoed by Rhodes' newest partner in the post, freshman Vernon Goodridge. "This boosts our confidence so much more."
Goodness knows the Bulldogs needed the boost. Seven-straight conference defeats had taken a toll on more than MSU's record, though that too was in serious need of boosting. State is still just 2-7 SEC, and ahead of only 1-7 Auburn on the West Division ladder. And at 12-10 overall the Bulldogs still have their work cut out just to arrive at the SEC Tournament better than break-even for the season. Post-season play seems hardly worth discussing at the moment with seven regular-season dates still on the slate.
Still, Stansbury says, "We're heading the right way." And the coach isn't basing this evaluation or attitude on the strength of just one homecourt win over a similarly-struggling victim. "I'm awful proud of the way our kids have responded in the last two weeks. That's the reason why we were able to win."
In point-of-fact the Bulldogs had been playing a bit better in recent weeks. After routs by LSU and Vanderbilt, State put up more respectable battles against Alabama and Kentucky. They didn't win, but the Dogs did play a somewhat better brand of ball in those defeats. It's no coincidence that the progress has followed a change in tipoff teams.
"I saw our team getting better since we went to that small lineup," said Stansbury. That is, a starting five made up of four guard-type players and Rhodes, nominally a power forward, the only big Dog on the court and in the post. The results have been encouraging, at least on the offensive team. After shooting 38%, 35%, and 33% in losses to LSU, Vandy, and Tennessee (that was the first game with the revised lineup), this smaller team has shot 41%, 42%, and 43%. Not huge strides, but progress all the same.
The Bulldogs have also been handling the ball better. "Our turnovers have been much-improved the last three games," the coach correctly noted. Now, only a team that has been the SEC's worst in terms of both turnover margin and assist/turnover ratio would call 44 lost possessions in three games progress, but in State's case that is a legitimate opinion. Not only that but the Dogs have ended a three-game string of less-than-10 assists by handing out 11 and 13 scoring passes their last two times out. Puppy steps, but in the right direction.
Stansbury also expects the trend to continue that way as senior guard Jamall Edmondson rounds into mid-season shape at last. "Having Jamall back is big," he said. "Last Tuesday was his first good, hard practice." Which explains much about State's play-making woes both before and after Edmondson came back to the active lineup as the primary point guard. While he'll never contend for all-league at the point, Edmondson does help settle the ball-handling situation considerably with his maturity.
He also frees freshman Jamont Gordon to spend more time working the baseline, without being tied to the point as he was much of January. To his credit Gordon hasn't complained about the unexpected responsibility; in fact he's tried to do even more than the job demands, which has shown in his turnovers and missed three-point attempts from out-top. Stansbury understands the situation better than anyone. "You have to live with the good and the bad. He's giving us more good than bad." Which at 13.7 points per game and 6.7 rebounds is a lot of good from Gordon, who should be a shoo-in for All-Freshman even in a SEC loaded with young talent.
Stansbury said Gordon'd decision-making can be questioned at times, but never his effort. In fact, "His competitive is at fault to a point, he wants to go beat his guy. And we're asking him halfway through a season to become a point guard in the SEC. That's not easy. He's handled it well, we're trying to let him pay to his strengths." Which means running the physical guard/forward all around and then into the lane where he can make things happen, or pitch the ball back out to a newly-open teammate. Stansbury wants Gordon touching the ball at some point most every play; that doesn't mean the rookie is asked to take every shot.
"We need to get him to let it go through him more," the coach said, before smiling. "But that's a work in progress."
Speaking of progress, after a strong pre-SEC stretch freshman Reginald Delk struggled and did not score double-figures in seven games. In seven-straight losses, to be exact, and while whether the two facts are directly related can be debated there's no question Delk can be Edmondson's complement on the perimeter. He hit two treys against Auburn and tallied nine points…still not double-figures but close enough after averaging five points in seven losses. Meanwhile Edmondson has knocked down 14 treys in his last four games. "Those were points we weren't getting before," Stansbury said.
One reason State is able to go ‘small' is that Gordon plays much bigger than his listed 6-4 size. The other is junior Dietric Slater's all-around athleticism. He, too, had failed to offer much offensive input for three weeks, but after scoring nine on Kentucky with six rebounds he contributed 10 points and seven more boards in the Auburn win. Stansbury even made a point of asking reporters not to overlook Slater's work in the win. "He did all the little things." Which included five steals and a pair of assists, and a blocked shot. At 6-3 there are obvious risks in playing Slater on the back line of a 2-3 zone, but it's the way State has to work these days.
For his part Rhodes should welcome an open midweek, if only to let the left ankle he turned before halftime Saturday rest. "But I'll be OK and ready for the next game," he promised. State certainly hopes so after a superb stretch by the big Dog. Rhodes overpowered a small Tiger team almost by himself, scoring 21 points and pulling down a personal-best 19 rebounds.
"I told him it was a good start, now all he has to do is get better!" quipped Slater. How much better Rhodes could play is a good question, because he has performed very, very well for over a month now. He has scored double-digit points his last ten games, and 21 points in consecutive contests. And he's combined for 30 boards in his last two outings.
"Coach told me to go out and try to get a double-double every night," Rhodes said. "That's what I'm trying to do."
Now, what Stansbury is trying to do is find the best way to help his ‘center' over the course of games. Rhodes starts alone in the paint; but increasingly he is being spelled by Goodridge, the raw-beyond-green freshman postman who Stansbury has decided to develop at a fast pace. "Speaking with coach at practice he says don't worry about offense or anything," the freshman says. "I'm just concentrating on grabbing rebounds and blocking shots, keeping people from scoring close to the basket. Maybe that'll make a difference."
This certainly is a different approach. After going small and taking 7-2 Wesley Morgan from the starting lineup, Stansbury increasingly uses Goodridge and, now, fellow frosh forward Bernard Rimmer instead of junior Piotr Stelmach. Some call it playing for the future; the coach calls it putting the best physical lineup together for today, and if that helps Goodridge and Rimmer develop more quickly so much the better.
"Our roles have changed so much we haven't had time to get adjusted," Stansbury noted. "Only since we've gone small have we adjusted. (Against Auburn ) we never went with Rhodes and Vernon, we went with Rimmer." In fact last week on his call-in show the coach went so far as to predict Rimmer can develop into the next Michael Gholar, the do-it-all forward key to the 2002 team's success.
"Rimmer brings great athleticism and ability to defend and rebound," Stansbury said Saturday. "He has a good basketball IQ and he's not looking to do anything but the little things that helps us to win." For his part Rimmer buys into that assignment. "I'm just trying to show Coach I could play a little bit, play a little defense. Maybe I'll stay out there a little longer. I ain't worried about scoring points. Right now that's what I should do, being a freshman playing the four. Get some rebounds, play defense."
"I'm just going to play no matter what," Goodridge echoed. "As long as I know how to play basketball a little bit I'll be alright." And the Bulldogs better for it, too. Meanwhile the coach welcomes a week to invest in refining the altered roles and revised lineup. "There are some changes we've made that we can practice. It'll give us a chance to get some work, and get some rest." It also gives the staff some time to go recruiting as well, which Stansbury had planned to do Wednesday and possibly Thursday. After all, he now has two newly-opend scholarships to give out after the dismissals of Walter Sharpe and Jerrell Houston. While the coach can't comment on prospects he has said one spring signing option is finding a junior college forward/center to plug into a still-developing frontcourt.
Otherwise, the Bulldogs will have regular practices Monday, Tuesday, probably Thursday, and definitely Friday. And what of their open Wednesday? "Even though we don't have a game we'll be in here practicing," said Slater. Even if it's on their own, too. That's what winning again can do for a club.