"We've been off game-wise," said White, "being such a young team we tried to use the time to practice hard and get better as a team." That meant Monday and Tuesday practices before taking the mandatory day-off yesterday. Now practicing for the weekend trip to South Carolina begins this afternoon. And, White said, today's work should include Charles Rhodes, who did not get on the court Monday or Tuesday after spraining his left ankle just before halftime in the win over Auburn.
"He has a little swelling, not too much," White said. "He should be able to practice today and definitely be ready to go Saturday. He's done all his rehab treatments so we really feel good."
Staff and team alike feel really good about Rhodes' play this SEC season and moreso after the past two games. The sophomore has scored 21 points in consecutive contests with 11 and 19 rebounds. He's scored in double-digits in his last ten games, and while his season scoring average is at 12.8 points the average in SEC play is up to 17.3 points. And Rhodes is firmly-established among the league's best board-men at 7.2 rebounds for the season, 9.3 SEC.
"Charles has really developed as the year's gone on," White said. "We know how important it is to gain confidence and he's definitely gained a lot of confidence. And as he does the team gains confidence in him. We're trying to get the ball to Charles more because he's shown he's definitely developed into a really good player in this league."
Rhodes has also been playing somewhat out-of-position. Ideally a power forward, he has moved into the low post as the nominal ‘center' in the small lineup that debuted two weeks ago. Stansbury has talked about varying the lineup but for four games now he has put Rhodes in the middle and surrounded him with four perimeter-type players. "We're trying to get our best basketball players on the floor," is how the head coach put it last week, pointing out that lineup options are relatively limited now with the dismissal of center Walter Sharpe.
Rhodes has held up his end of the gameplan. Still the staff wants to both give their soph big man some help and som relief. Up to mid-January that came from senior center Wesley Morgan and junior forward Piotr Stelmach; now a couple of newer faces have been worked into larger roles in the rotation. Vernon Goodridge is getting most of the minutes off-the-bench at center, and now Bernard Rimmer subs-in as the big forward.
Statistically there hasn't been a lot to show from either so far, but that is not really what the staff is looking for right now. Their goal is getting as much help from the new (not necessarily young as Rimmer is the same age as Rhodes, 20, and Goodridge turns 22 this month) as practical while developing them for the future. It's a gamble of course as vets like Morgan and Stelmach would be more comfortable in SEC competition. But the trade-off seems worth it at this point.
Besides, White notes, the new guys are settling in nicely now. "Confidence can never be underestimated, especially with young kids. We've been telling Bernard just keep practicing hard, keep your head up and in time you'll get your opportunity. Now he's getting his opportunity to play. Same thing with Vernon, we're just trying to work with him daily so that when he does get in the game he understands what is going on. Every game he gets a little more confidence."
All the Bulldogs will need as much confidence as possible before resuming the schedule Saturday. South Carolina is a particularly tough matchup to figure out, and not just because the Gamecocks bring all sorts of schemes into games. USC is only 3-6 in SEC play, yet two of those wins have come over a ranked Florida team. Their second success over the Gators was just last night, in Gainesville, which speaks volumes for how well the Gamecocks can play on any given evening.
"They're coming off a great win, we know it's going to be tough," said White. "They've lost some hard-fought games but they've got two victories over Florida. They're a very versatile team, very quick and athletic. They can go to different types of lineups, a big or small lineup. Like last night at Florida, when they got in foul trouble they went with (postman Renaldo) Balkman and four guards. That creates a lot of matchup problems.
"And Coach Dave Odom likes to change defenses and keep you off-balance. You have to just go in and get two or three things offensively you're looking to do so your players don't have to think too much." Which goes back to just how far along these Bulldogs are in their own development. The staff still has to be selective in just how much they try to teach the kids, and how much responsibility several of them can handle at the moment.
But at least they've snapped a seven-game SEC losing string, and had a chance to catch their breath.
Meanwhile, the Southeastern Conference will be holding it's ‘Throwback Uniform' week from February 18-26, in which all league schools will wear specifically-designed gear recalling the older days. These uniforms will also be worn for every game in the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
Mississippi State will be hosting Mississippi on February 18 for its Throwback Game, and the contest will be televised live on ESPN Classic with a 2:30 gametime. Of the 18 SEC games during Throwback Week, 15 will be televised. More info on what the dozen league schools are doing for Throwback uniforms is featured on the league's website, www.secsports.com.