Bulldogs Prepare For Rematch With Auburn

Considering the struggles of this SEC season, Rick Stansbury doesn't mind his team savoring the successes they can score…as long as they put it behind in time for the next game. That could be a real challenge for the Bulldog coach this week.

Not only is Mississippi State coming off a rousing rivalry-victory over Mississippi, but the Bulldogs are about to play another club they recently dominated. Thus as the staff prepares for Wednesday night's game at Auburn, not much will be said about State's 71-53 win back on February 4. "You can forget the first score here in Starkville," Stansbury said Monday morning.

Perhaps easier said than done. For one thing that score just happened to snap a seven-game losing streak, reason enough to remember the day. What is more concern to Stansbury is that after a slow start the Dogs dominated the Tigers, with four State starters scoring in double-digits and the fifth missing by a single point. If his team goes to Auburn expecting a comparable evening, they could be setting themselves up for another hard fall.

"We know we have a tough challenge," Stansbury said.

At 13-12 and 3-9 SEC the Bulldogs have obviously seen and failed their share of challenges already. Yet this only sets up another potential pitfall, as Auburn (10-13, 2-10 SEC) is the one conference club an unwary State could dare to look down upon. And with so many new faces in the lineup it might not help for Stansbury to point out what happened last season, when a much-better, far-more-veteran State team was upset 90-76 at Auburn.

If the coach wants to get his team's attention, pointing to one record might help. "They're so much better at home than on the road," he said of the Tigers, who in fact have scored all ten of their wins in their own gym. Auburn is 0-9 in road games, six of those losses in league play. Besides, Stansbury notes, "At home they seem to have been able to be in every game they've played, including Saturday." He referred to a 65-61 loss to Division-leading LSU, where Auburn gave the visiting ‘other' Tigers all they could handle.

Besides being forgetful, Stansbury might want his club to be a bit deaf away from the practice court for a couple of days, too. He certainly doesn't want them to hear such suggestions as that Auburn is the most promising opponent for the sort of lineup State has been starting lately. In fact, the Tigers were the first team the Dogs beat after the staff changed to a ‘small' tipoff team, with forward Charles Rhodes moving into the pivot surrounded by four perimeter-type players. Those five Dogs accounted for 69 of the 71 points scored in beating Auburn, saying much about how well they really did compare to the opponent…and about what the MSU bench was able to offer.

Still State's coach doesn't want his starters taking a rematch for granted. "I don't know if it's the best matchup," he said. "We're similar in some ways. From a size standpoint they're even bigger than we are when we start Charles and Dietric. They're going to start two 6-8 guys at least." That's a slight exaggeration, as Auburn has only one 6-8 player (freshman Joey Cameron) on the roster, and he averages 11 minutes. Still, when AU opens with a 6-3 and 6-5 backcourt, and wingmen 6-7 and 6-5, it does average out an inch or so taller than Mississippi State's starting quartet of guards and small-forwards.

Whatever the respective sizes, or lack thereof, this remains a matchup where the Bulldogs aren't likely to be overpowered. The Tiger gameplan is just the opposite as Auburn prefers to push the pace and take shots before a defense gets fully-set. 34% shooting in Starkville foiled that attack, though Stansbury also gave credit to good Dog defense. And the next time State played on the home court the results were almost identical as Mississippi shot just one-tenth of a percentage point better than Auburn had.

Stansbury was proud of how his Dogs guarded the Rebels in a 84-55 rout, the largest margin of victory in the rivalry since 1995 and most one-sided of his 13 wins over Ole Miss. The coach has claimed progress by State on the defensive end for a couple of games now, even while South Carolina and LSU were hanging 83 and 72 points on MSU.

"It was definitely an improvement for the first 35 minutes we played those starters. We were very consistent throughout, it was probably another level of energy and toughness. Even though I thought we've gotten better the last 2-3 weeks on defense, it was another level." Naturally the rivalry atmosphere helped inspire such increased effort, but Stansbury still likes the way this team is regaining some of the defensive mindset of his previous clubs.

"There's certain ways you guard certain people and certain teams," he said. "You have to make adjustments with gameplans and doing things. But you can talk about how to do it and show kids how to guard, but they've got to have the toughness and energy to go do it. And we were fortunate in those areas Saturday."

Of course fortune usually follows effort, and the Bulldogs gave that against their rivals. Many of the individiual efforts were obvious, such as Jamont Gordon hounding the Rebel point guard while Rhodes and guard Dietric Slater doubled in the post as needed. Those players stood out; what Stansbury liked was some less-appreciated work, such as how guard Reginald Delk did his job in man-on-man defending. The freshman has found checking college players a stiffer challenge than he likely expected and it has shown.

But now the off-guard is getting up to SEC speed. "All areas of his defense have improved," Stansbury said. "It starts with on-ball defense, if you can't guard on the ball you can't play at this level. It's really improved the last month. We've challenged and worked with him, been on him about it, and he's gotten better. His help-side defense isn't where it needs to be, but he's made progress."

Meanwhile the Bulldogs hope to make progress in the end-of-season record. With four games left on the SEC schedule State still has time to strengthen their seeding in the conference tournament, as well as lock up a sixth-consecutive winning season for the first time since the 1920s.

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