Coach Rick Stansbury can hope this second shot at the Tigers goes better than the first. But he's also realistic about the re-matchup with a LSU team that beat the Dogs 71-57 in Humphrey Coliseum back on January 18. And he downplays recent struggles by the Tigers, who have lost two of the last three games. Both defeats came on the SEC road, and neither affect the fundamental fact that LSU remains the West pacesetter.
"We know LSU is not just one of the best teams in this league, they're one of the better teams in the country," Stansbury said Monday morning.
The Tigers bring a 16-7 record into the midweek meeting, and at 8-2 SEC they are a game in front of 7-3 Alabama. LSU was one of the two league teams ranked in the top-25 last week, along with Tennessee. Whether or not the Bengals still have a number in front of their name after losing 71-62 at Florida depends on this afternoon's pollings, but Coach John Brady's bunch is likely much more concerned with holding on to top-spot in the Division after this week's games with MSU and at Auburn.
Stansbury knows exactly what to expect the second time-around. A month ago the Bulldogs had no answer for LSU's front-line tandem of 300-pound center Glenn Davis and high-flying forward Tyrus Thomas, as the pair combined for 31 points and 16 rebounds. "Their frontcourt is as good as anyone in the country," Stansbury said, hardly a bold comment. But his opinion on what, or who, makes the Tigers run might open a few eyes as he discussed senior guard Darrell Mitchell. "He's the key to their team."
Mitchell was certainly key in beating the Bulldogs in January, scoring 15 points with a trio of treys. He was also the only Tiger—or participant, period—to play all 40 minutes that day. "He's done that all year," the MSU coach said. "He's one of the better two-guards in this league. He can shoot it, but at the same time he's so quick off that dribble, everybody knows how good they are inside but the one guy they can't do without is Mitchell." By contrast the Bulldogs could happily do without seeing Mitchell on the court. As Stansbury noted. "He had big games on us last year." Or he did at Baton Rouge, with 20 points in 39 minutes. At Starkville in 2005 he only had eight points in 37 minutes and missed all four attempts from the arc. Still, LSU won both meetings and now has a three-game streak going against State.
Breaking that streak might be a tall order for the Bulldogs, especially on the road. State is 1-5 on opposing home courts this season and winless in five SEC road trips. The latest setback was a 83-61 loss Saturday at South Carolina which dropped the overall record to 12-11 and the league mark to 2-8. Coming off a home win over Auburn, which snapped a seven-game SEC losing string, the Dogs had hoped to put on a better show at USC.
And Stansbury did see some encouraging signs, at least initially. "I thought we came out and played awful well early, we were tied at the six-minute mark," he said. His team even had an few brief leads in the first ten minutes, a rarity on the road this year. "We got ahead, that was kind of a first," Stansbury quipped. Yet hopes for stealing one in Columbia faded fast and fully before halftime. "That was basically a six-and-a-half-minute game," the coach said, as the Gamecocks went on a 18-2 run to seize complete control.
"We didn't play with much composure. We just kind of disintegrated from then on." Though, Stansbury added, his team did pull themselves back together to some extent in the second half. Such as getting into the offense and running plays. "We had nine assists and just three turnovers for 20 minutes. That's a positive." In fact this was just the second game of the season that the Bulldogs had more assists for 40 minutes than turnovers. So there were positives…just not enough of them.
And even some of the positive-looking performances had to be qualified. Such as the 18 points for power forward Charles Rhodes. It was his 11th-straight game scoring in double-digits, but the sophomore was just 8-of-18 from the floor. "For the first time he missed a lot of easy shots," Stansbury said. "Particularly in that (USC) run when he was 1-of-5. Those were shots he normally has a chance to make. We just needed a basket to go down and stop some bleeding."
Rhodes also had five turnovers for his tough day. Yet what that decisive stretch points up is not any faults in Rhodes but the degree to which this team has come to rely on the soph, who is already playing out-of-position at center in a small lineup. Now he's also the center of defensive attention and having to work in, around, or over double-teams. LSU will surely recall how Rhodes shot 7-of-11 in the first meeting and give even more focus to the big Dog.
Wingman Jamont Gordon is giving the postman all support he can manage, and he scored 13 points with eight rebounds at South Carolina. And the freshman had a much more positive outing with nine assists against four turnovers, putting in a stronger second half. The 6-4 rookie is certainly fearless as his 13-rebound effort against LSU's imposing front line the last time showed.
For that matter four Bulldogs scored in double-digits at USC, and rookie guard Reginald Delk had a pair of treys. So there were indeed some good signs. But Stansbury was not pleased at all with getting no points from the bench. In fact of the four Dogs that subbed-in for 33 combined minutes only forwards Bernard Rimmer and Piotr Stelmach took a shot…and a single shot each, at that. The coach wants backups like freshman center Vernon Goodridge to be more aggressive on offense and force the other team to guard them, instead of disappearing in the paint.
Yet if Stansbury could have his team deliver on one goal at this late-season moment, it would be to play the way they did those first dozen minutes at USC, or as they did three-quarters against Auburn, for a full game. Then these Dogs could start getting some things done down the schedule's stretch.
"But you can't play 35, 30 minutes," Stansbury said. "Our team has such a small margin for error, we have to string it together for 40 minutes."