"Arkansas is coming off a nice road win at Tennessee," Stansbury said. "Always at their place it's very difficult, and we've got them on Senior Night. So we know it's a huge challenge ahead of us."
What is immediately ahead is a Razorback club that has done more than beat the Vols, as notable as that was. With their postseason prospects hanging in the balance, the ‘Backs knocked off Florida and Alabama at home before heading to Knoxville and all but locking up the program's first NCAA berth in five years. Now the Hogs are coming home for one last time, which is sure to be both a celebration and send-off…with the Bulldogs as special ‘guests' for the evening.
No wonder Stansbury said the first challenge Wednesday is dealing with "a lot of emotion on Senior Night."
In any event this Arkansas team goes into March a much different group than the one State beat 69-67 in Humphrey Coliseum on the SEC's January 7 opening day. For that matter the Razorbacks hardly resemble the bunch that blew big leads at Alabama and Kentucky and twice came up short to West loop-leading LSU. Stansbury points to how a trio of backcourt veterans have stepped to the fore the last two weeks and turned the whole team into a contender…just in time for March fun.
"Their biggest improvement is their seniors seem to be making plays down the stretch. Eric Ferguson, Ronnie Brewer and Jonathan Modica, two are seniors and one (Brewer) is a junior, all three of those guys have made winning plays three games in a row. Games they could have been beaten in, they all made huge plays, and that's what they're supposed to do." Especially, Stansbury added, since these old Hogs don't want to end their careers without ever playing in a NCAA Tournament. "If they're ever going to do it this is there time to do it."
Of course it isn't as if Stansbury is venturing into new territory this mid-week. This will be his eighth trip to Walton Arena, where two years ago MSU's SEC Championship team scored the first Bulldog win in the venue ever. Then last year's senior-laden club did it again. But practically all the Dogs who had a hand in those victories are gone. "This is a new team we're taking to Arkansas," agreed Stansbury, who can only envy the Razorback's veteran-led lineup this winter. He also knows those older Hogs have some scores to settle with State, after five-straight losses in the series.
For their part these Bulldogs would love to just break their string of SEC-road troubles. Most of the setbacks weren't close, and even last Wednesday's four-point defeat at Auburn was deceptive, because State fell behind as many as 20 points in each half before a late, and too-late, rally. Still Stansbury points out that his team has shown early-game competitiveness away from home lately.
"Our problem has been stretches on the road. We've played well at times, at South Carolina and Auburn we had a lead the first ten minutes, at LSU we had a lead. But then we have those bad possessions offensively, which seems to lead to bad shots, quick shots." And in turn missed shots at coming home with a win. By contrast the Dogs have won their last three home games, and all by decisive margins. They beat Auburn by 18, Mississippi by 29, and this past Saturday stormed back from a 13-point deficit in the first half to win running away 83-68.
That latest win showed the Dogs at both their best and worst, and included one of those first-period "lulls" as Stansbury calls them when the other side built a sizable margin. The difference? The setting. "We were able to withstand that run and play with more poise at home," the coach said.
"The biggest challenge for our team is the same as all year on the road, play with enough poise to handle those runs. That's been a tough thing for us, in the past we've had guys who could play with poise and toughness on the road. We don't have that on this team."
At the same time with the schedule winding down some of these Bulldogs are growing up. "We're different ourselves," Stansbury acknowledged. Such as on defense, where four of the last five opponents have been held to 40% or worse shooting. And in the three wins State has given up just 59 points on average. True, all three victims are down on the lower rungs of the respective Divisions with the Dogs. Still this is encouraging to a coaching staff that has been frustrated by lack of consistent defense.
This is due to two complementary moves made in February. First, Stansbury gave up on a standard-sized lineup and went to a four-guard, one-big forward starting squad. That in turn led to a re-commitment to the type of man-to-man defense Stansbury has always favored.
"We've had to make so many changes this year, one after another," the coach said. "Earlier we were forced to play that zone with injuries and youth. But it's helped for sure to change to man. We still play some zone, but since we've gone ‘smaller' it's helped with our quickness."
For the Georgia game Stansbury had to make another lineup change, the ninth of the season, when guard Jamall Edmondson was unable to play with both developing pneumonia and a re-aggravated groin strain. The senior's season has been interrupted by that injury three times already; this could likely be the last time. "We're probably without him the rest of the season," Stansbury reported.
This means freshman guard Richard Delk will likely stay in the starting job he had against Georgia, joining twin brother Reginald in the backcourt with junior Dietric Slater and freshman Jamont Gordon swinging from guard to forward. Gordon is also essentially back to playing at the point as he did five starts in January when Edmondson was previously sidelined, since he is physically better-able to cope with pressure defenses than Richard Delk.
Whoever is in the backcourt, Rhodes is thriving in the paint. He is coming off a 27-point performance against Georgia that not only was the soph's career-high but also nudged him in front of Gordon for the season scoring lead at 13.7 points. Rhodes was already the team's top scorer for SEC season by a wide margin, and with 15-straight double-digit games he is making a strong bid for all-conference recognition next week.
Speaking of tournament time…while Arkansas has just about played its way into the NCAAs now, the Bulldogs are hoping to score some late-season wins and perhaps attract a bid from the NIT. Except, Stansbury said this morning that the tournament is not a topic of discussion between staff and team. Nor need it be.
"Everybody can read about it and talk about it. They (the players) know where we're at. We'd love to play in it but we've got to win games. That's our challenge still, to find ways of winning games. We don't talk about it, it's enough pressure trying to finish strong. It's obvious we've gotten better the last two-three weeks, the next step is we have to find a way to go on the road and win."
This doesn't mean Stansbury minds the NIT-topic, though. After all, it was this tournament that in 2001 offered a young Bulldog team a bid and started a five-year stretch of post-season play for State. "The biggest difference is we had sophomores and juniors on that team. I don't know that we had a freshman on that team." Upon which reporters reminded Stansbury of 2001 rookies such as Timmy Bowers and Mario Austin, who clearly were the better for their participation in three NIT games and the next season earned their first NCAA bid.
But the coach is correct in that this team is much, much younger than the '01 club. Besides, every Dog that started the most recent game will be back next season. So a post-season berth of any sort for this team could pay off in the future, as it did five years ago. "Does it help, absolutely, moreso than even practicing. It gives more confidence coming back for next year. Any time you can continue to play and practice and give your kids confidence, particularly with a young team, I think it helps immensely."