"We're playing team basketball," said soph guard Jamont Gordon.
And playing it well again after a couple of November stumbles. Mississippi State went into exams week 4-2, knocking off Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to improve the record to 4-2. The Dogs have won their last two contests know, including an impressive thumping of visiting Charlotte…though Coach Rick Stansbury doesn't want beating the Islanders to be under-valued. "They (TA&MCC) came in with a RPI of 51," the coach noted. So State has scored a couple of quality home wins, recovering well from a home loss to Winthrop and road defeat at Clemson. Even that three-point setback looks better as the Tigers beat South Carolina over the weekend to remain unbeaten.
Not that some knowledgeable Dogs are so accepting of that or any defeat, or feel the last two Ws have negated the preceding defeats. "No, I don't," says Hansbrough, bluntly. "We still lost those games and we should have won. Those games are in the past but you know, we still have something to prove."
So there seems no danger of the Dogs losing focus, even during tests week, on the tasks ahead. Such as this Saturday's home game with South Alabama, and even moreso the trip to Miami for a Monday road matchup with another ACC program. That sort of talk has to sound sweet to a coaching staff that apparently needn't worry about keeping their hounds both humbled and hungry.
At the same time Stansbury welcomes the timing of this non-competition week. It allows more chance for Charles Rhodes to heal the wrist sprained by a hard fall late in the Charlotte game. Rhodes did not dress for Corpus Christi, the first game he'd missed in just over a calendar year. "It's not broken," Stansbury said. "It's a sprain. We have a week off now and hopefully by next weekend he'll be able to go."
Certainly the All-SEC junior's 13 points and six rebounds will be welcomed back into the gameplan, not to mention Rhodes' superior defensive experience around the rack. Rhodes also has his personal 23-game streak of scoring in double-digits to extend; sitting one out-of-uniform shouldn't count against him. Yet the Bulldogs have shown already this season they don't absolutely depend on the big Dog to play good ball and win games. Well, a game. Still Stansbury liked how the team responded to Rhodes' absence against Corpus Christi.
"The positive thing was we had other people step up," the coach said. "This time last year we wouldn't have had enough depth." Not quality depth under the goal, he meant. It's a different matter this time around. Soph Vernon Goodridge is starting to become the producer hoped-for and used Rhodes' absence to post his first career double-double before fouling out. He also blocked a couple of Islander shots, though Goodridge wasn't entirely content with his defensive day.
"I tried to keep everybody out, a dude got a layup on me when I first came in and I wasn't too happy! I just had to play. It was my time to step up and show everyone I could do it."
Goodridge only had nine minutes, four points and three boards against Charlotte, spelling Rhodes and/or Jarvis Varnado. Yet the coach liked what he saw. "He showed signs last game of stepping up. We knew he'd have to play more minutes and he added (to the team). The more he can play the more confidence he can get."
Skinny center Varnado has been on a faster track with three starts already, once with Rhodes alongside as a big-forward. The freshman has fit in very well, not the least because he has played within his freshman limitations. Such as picking his shots; Varnado has taken only 19 attempts and made 11, giving him a 58% accuracy better than Rhodes. For that matter the postman Varnado replaced, senior Piotr Stelmach, has also been appropriately picky and made over 58% of his own attempts.
This case shouldn't be over-stated; the combined scoring averages of these three postmen is still three points short of Rhodes' typical evening. But all rebound well, Varnado and Goodridge have 19 of the team's 40 blocks between them, and the trio is increasingly comfortable, even confident, in what they bring to the floor. This should pay off come SEC season when Rhodes needs either help or a break, or both.
At the same time the Bulldogs have few concerns now about playing things ‘small.' Of course the term is relative because guys like Gordon are able to play big. The 6-4 soph is grabbing a team-best nine rebounds, as well as setting the scoring pace at 16.7. In fact he is the first Dog to reach 100 points for the season and Gordon is coming off a career-best 24 in Saturday's win.
Almost as notable is how the soph is getting his game under greater control. Through six games Gordon has 29 assists and 30 turnovers, still a negative balance but vastly better than his rookie season's ratio. Stansbury was entirely satisfied with Saturday's efforts. "I thought Jamont had a great floor game, he controlled the flow of the game, and at one or four he made easy plays."
It didn't look that way initially as Gordon was 3-of-12 shooting in the first half, seemingly forcing too many attempts on reckless runs at the rim. But there was method there as Gordon, under orders, was trying to create for teammates; and once the Islander defense was sucked-in the guard pitched the ball out to open shooters. And in the second half he shot 3-of-5, including his seventh trey of the season.
"We got open shots passing the ball," Gordon said. "We shared the ball and knocked down shots." ‘Sharing' is the key concept here; the Bulldogs have been able in the last two wins to do a better job distributing the ball, stretching defenses, and finding higher-percentage opportunities. Doing so Saturday without Rhodes drawing attention was a very good sign, Gordon said.
"We had some people come in and pick up the slack. Everybody played good out there. Ben gave us great minutes, the twins were doing things they hadn't been doing for a couple of games, I picked it up a little bit. Everybody was doing something out there."
Hansbrough certainly did with a 23-point afternoon, 15 of those points from the arc. "I've been working on my shot a little and getting back into this routine," he said. Only a perfectionist would complain about 50% accuracy on trey-tries coming into that game, but that's Hansbrough. He was 7-of-14 through the first five games, then lit up Corpus Christi with 5-of-6 shooting from long-range. And, he added, "I don't want to talk about taking more shots, I got more looks."
The freshman can expect increasing attention everywhere as he is up to 11.5 points per outing. "He can score a lot of ways, in transition," says Stansbury. "When he takes open three-point shots he's a good three-point shooter." Hansbrough is also offering 3.0 assists (eight Saturday) when passing; but for now the coach has no intention of pulling Gordon off the point to make room for the rookie shooter/passer.
Not that it matters as in MSU's schemes Reginald and Richard Delk end up handling the ball about as much as Gordon. Reginald, who set the MSU rookie record for made-treys, is off to a slower sophomore start at the arc having hit 8-of-28 so far. Richard is 4-of-13 from long-range himself. Still they both provide consistency in all aspects and both ends of the floor. Then when it's time, frosh Barry Stewart subs-in for either and starts sticking long shots; he is 12-of-26 through six outings and third in team scoring with 11.3 points off the bench.
In fact, Stewart and Hansbrough are a combined 52% on three-pointers; the three soph guards 31%. Should the newer kids get more minutes, even take starting jobs? That is entirely beside the point, says Gordon. "I'd rather have a lot of guys ready to play, to make matchup problems with other teams. We have our core five but we switch in-and-out and cause problems for teams." The core of that five remains Rhodes and Gordon, but the latter freely admits they are thriving this season thanks to increased contributions from, well, from everyone.
"They're taking pressure off me and Charles and we're able to go score because they're shooting well, passing well, playing good defense. We can do what we do best, we don't have to force things."
Other than this week force themselves to take are of the academic side of their Bulldog business, then re-adjust the mindset for whatever practice times their coaches find. Goodridge understands which is the current priority. "We have to keep those grades up, pass our classes. We knock finals out and we'll be straight."
And hopefully by Saturday that core lineup will also be straightened out, with Rhodes ready to resume his proper place. Coming off two solid games Stansbury would naturally prefer to keep rolling. "But we do get a little break to get everybody recuperated and ready to go."