"We have to get our team ready to play a new season," is how Stansbury put it Monday morning.
A season that tips off Thursday afternoon at the Gaylord Center. And the after-noon part is literal as Mississippi State and South Carolina meet in a scheduled 12:00 (CT) contest, which is the first game of the first day in this year's tourney. The Bulldogs (15-14, 5-11 SEC) go to Nashville as the #4 seed out of the Western Division, while the Gamecocks (also 15-14, 5-11) are #5 from the East.
The outlook for this first-round matchup seems as even as the records, and both teams scored wins on the last day of their regular seasons to avoid being the bottom seeds from their respective Divisions. South Carolina won at Auburn, while State thumped Alabama at home.
And even if the respective squads weren't so seemingly well-matched, Stansbury notes that once past the top seeds there is rarely much to choose between teams on the first day of the SEC Tournament. "It's wide-open," he said of this year's tourney. "And on a neutral site 2-through-6 teams like us have a chance."
Of course there is one obvious clue to how most will see this meeting. When the teams played on February 11 in Columbia the Gamecocks romped to a 83-61 victory. The home team used excellent outside shooting to blow away the Bulldogs, hitting 11 three-pointers. Six of these came from guard Tre Kelley. South Carolina also won the rebounding battle, 34 to 30, and were able to score a easy win despite taking only four free throws all evening.
"South Carolina is probably the one team that handled us easier than anybody else all year," Stansbury said. "They took it to us in Columbia three weeks ago. We know they're a very good team, and when they play well they're as good as anybody in this league." But, until Saturday the Gamecocks were not playing well, having lost four-straight times. Three of those were homecourt losses, also. South Carolina had to ease by Auburn just to stay out of the bottom seeding, which Georgia inherited.
While the Bulldogs haven't exactly stormed through the rest of the schedule since that whipping, they have played a better brand of ball down the season stretch. "We've been competitive lately, including on the road," Stansbury said. State is 3-3 since February 11 with all the wins at home. For that matter, the Dogs won their last four home contests and all by double-digit margins.
The latest was Saturday's 71-58 success against Alabama, which might have been State's most impressive all-around win of the long season. Not just because the Crimson Tide is the highest-seeded victim of the year, but for how the Dogs responded to their latest personnel-setback and still beat a quality club. Three days before the home finale junior guard Dietric Slater, who had scored 53 total points and averaged double-digit rebounds in the previous three games, injured a knee three minutes into a game at Arkansas.
That left Stansbury short two veterans for the Alabama game, as senior guard Jamall Edmondson was just coming back to town after a week at home with illness on top of a re-aggravated groin strain. And backup center Vernon Goodridge was very limited for the game, too. "We weren't for sure how we'd make it up," Stansbury said of rotation plans for the Alabama matchup. "But we had some guys do it. And some guys off the bench who hadn't played much."
This referred to senior center Wesley Morgan and senior guard Michael Boler, inserted into the starting lineup for their home finale. It proved far more productive than anyone could have hoped, as the upperclassmen played solid first halves and gave steady relief duty in the second period. Their contributions were critical and allowed Stansbury to shuffle in effective lineups out of a limited roster. Edmondson and Goodridge even got to put in cameo appearances at the end.
But all the feel-good from Saturday has to be forgotten, fast. And as for ‘momentum' Stansbury is realistic. "Do I like going to Nashville off a win better than after a loss, absolutely. But does it mean anything, no." What means more to the coach is how the Bulldogs are performing now compared to two, even one month ago. "It's a fine margin with this team, but what I'm pleased with is they're playing hard," he said.
"We've gotten better. We're taking care of the ball much better, we're a much better defensive team. We've become more efficient offensively." This area has improved with the maturing of forward/center Charles Rhodes, who through 16 SEC teams has averaged 17 points and over seven rebounds. And he's done it despite being in the middle of a ‘small' lineup with four guard-type players surrounding him. Stansbury always thought Rhodes would be a big-time player in this league. "But it's come quicker than we anticipated. He's become more consistent."
As to who starts beside Rhodes this week, or what sort of lineup—big, small, or a combination—he plans to put on court for Thursday's tipoff, the coach can't say yet. State could keep 7-2 Morgan in the post, or stay with a four-guard set and have both the Delk twins, Richard and Reginald, joining ‘point forward' Jamont Gordon and Boler. It's also possible that Edmondson will be able to play by Thursday, though after missing all but ten seconds of the last three games his status is still very questionable.
At the same time few teams get to this March week at 100% health, and this year's SEC is noteworthy for thin rosters already. Though, South Carolina seems to be an exception to that general rule. And an underlying theme to this tourney is that teams such as State, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt are all playing to improve their case for a bid from the NIT. Conventional thinking is State needs to finish over .500 to get a bid, which would mean winning at least once in Nashville.
Yet just as the Bulldogs need to get over their home-finale win, they also have to set aside thoughts of another tournament if they intend to show up well in this one. Here, Stansbury is optimistic. "And hey, if you're a player who doesn't get excited to play in the SEC Tournament," he notes. "We've had some success in it."