And there the State staff was expecting a much better midweek road trip, after the Bulldogs had routed Mississippi 83-54 on the home court just the previous Saturday. Then again, based on the previous three months of play, Stansbury went to Auburn worried about a letdown from his inconsistent team. His pregame concerns along that line proved prophetic after all.
"My biggest concern was emotional, would we rebound and play with the urgency you have to on the road," Stansbury said this morning. "Plus, coming off an emotional game Saturday, are you mature and tough enough to play with the focus you need to. That was answered the first half."
Make that, the ‘second quarter.' The Bulldog opened well enough and held a 16-12 lead near the ten-minute mark without playing all that great a brand of ball. It didn't last.
"The first ten minutes we were decent offensively but we turned the ball over," the coach said. "Then we let them go on a 28-4 run and that's where the game was decided." The Bulldogs did make it interesting near the finish, getting within six points and rebounding a Tiger miss at around 1:15…only to throw the ball away for a cheap, decisive Tiger bucket. "We come out the second half and play the way our team needs to," said Stansbury, "we outscore them 51-20 the second half." But it wasn't enough to get a win the Dogs desperately needed.
Because now at 13-13 overall, with three games left on the league schedule, State is in real danger of going to the SEC Tournament under .500. This in turn would essentially squelch MSU's fragile hopes of attracting a bid from the NIT, which barring an incredible run in the SEC Tourney is the only viable post-season option. Even the NIT is a long shot now as at least four more conference clubs will be considered for that tourney, and all have as many or one more win than the Bulldogs.
State has played in five-straight postseason tournaments, including the NIT in 2001 and the NCAAs the last four years. Extending the streak might not have taken a fatal blow, but there is no margin for any further such error left. Which makes Saturday's game with Georgia (4:00CT, no telecast) essentially do-or-die for the Dogs. Not that the Bulldog coach is talking about such things at this point; he only cares about getting ready for the upcoming all-Bulldog battle at Humphrey Coliseum.
The twist now is that, where Stansbury fretted about a post-win letdown Wednesday he now must get a loss out of State's system. As the up-and-down cycle of the last three weeks has shown, it's easier said than done.
"We're coming off a game where I didn't think we played very well for a ten-minute stretch in the first half and dug ourselves in a hole on the road," Stansbury said. "We're coming back home against a team that really plays hard." Georgia, which plays a rare SEC Thursday game tonight against South Carolina, is also State's last chance to score a win against an Eastern Division team. MSU has never been shut out in inter-Division play, and these ‘other' Bulldogs have had their own struggles this season. Still early scouting looks show a UG team playing much better lately, as well as more consistently.
"They've got a lot of perimeter depth and some big bodies on the inside. Coach Dennis Felton has them playing hard and they've been in most games so far." Even winning some of them, too. Certainly Stansbury respects the way the UG Dogs have handled their own challenges. His own team could learn a few lessons in that regard, especially now in the late-going when the coach had hoped the Bulldogs would be a more polished product.
"Naturally any time you don't play well you take a step back from where you want to be." But losing at Auburn was a long step back, and losing the way State did pointed to the same nagging problem of inconsistent performance and even effort, especially in road SEC games where MSU is 0-7. Stansbury keeps telling the team that it takes 35, even 40 steady minutes to win away from home, and particularly to prevent the types of runs Auburn went on. Or other teams State has lost to on the road, for that matter.
"At home you can survive those droughts playing not as well because the spurts are not as long," Stansbury said. "You have to slow it down and keep it from snowballing. At South Carolina, at LSU, there's been spots every game the teams go on a run and we can't seem to slow it down. It makes us rush offensively, take bad shots, and we don't play with the same urgency on the defensive end."
That latter aspect might have been the most frustrating of all, as lately Stansbury was making more encouraging comments about how the Dogs had been defending. The Tigers shot that idea up with a barrage of easy baskets and open jumpshots. It was such a surge that Stansbury didn't rant and rave in the locker room, or so he claimed. "Oh, I was very nice at halftime," he said.
Seriously, though, State's coach is playing his own day-to-day, week-to-week game now in how much he puts on a Bulldog squad that is still figuring itself out. It's an aggravating situation all-around, all the moreso because MSU is not the only league lineup relying heavily on first-year starters and freshman players. Several SEC squads are just as young and/or new, some have even less depth, yet they have meshed better to-date. And using a different lineup than the one that tipped-off SEC season is no longer an excuse as the four-guard, one-forward set has been together for seven games now, and still there are serious problems with turnovers and perimeter defense.
So Stansbury isn't slacking-up on an inconsistent club here late in the year, even with the pressures to avoid the program's first losing season since most of State's current starters were in junior high. They may still be freshmen, but they are also one-season SEC veterans by now. "It's a time of year when I feel more comfortable pushing them than early in the year. They've been through enough fire now, they understand what I'm talking about.
"It's such a fine line this time of year. It's a long season, you've got Georgia in here Saturday afternoon. We're coming off a long bus trip last night, the kids got to bed 2:30 or 3:00. What you want to do is probably different than what you should do, if you can read between the lines with that! You want to practice hard and physical, but at the same time you have to be smart about it."