Specifically, a Volunteer team that went 12-2 in their own pre-SEC slate with wins over ranked victims such as Memphis and Texas. Going into league play Tennessee tops conference scoring at 85.5 points per game, as well as three-pointers made per contest, and features the SEC's top scorer. The Vols are also 9-0 on the home court. "They're a team that's playing awfully well, their record shows it. They haven't just beaten good competition, they've blown them out at home."
Back in the December days when the Dogs played at home they were blowing foes out also, by an average margin of 22 points in five wins. Those came in a streak of seven-straight victories which included a 70-52 success at Miami and 89-63 rout of New Orleans on a technically ‘neutral' court in Jackson, Miss. But since Christmas the Bulldogs have fallen by 63-59 and 83-75 scores at George Mason and Missouri.
This gives State a 9-4 record entering the SEC half of the season. "Naturally we'd like to have won another game or two," Stansbury said. "But we put the schedule together knowing we had a young team. I wanted the challenge of going on the road and playing in some tough environments." What in retrospect the coach would now change about the pre-SEC slate is not the opposition but the timing, most specifically having to play at GMU and Missouri in one extended trip after a lengthy holiday layoff.
"I really felt we had some effects of that nine-day break, it was terrible for us. It's just the way our scheduling fell." Otherwise, though, Stansbury is reasonably satisfied with the results of his non-conference scheduling and even dismisses the impact losing three road games (and a November home tilt) will have in the bigger picture. "You have to go 8-8 in the league no matter what, so no question we've been road-tested non-conference wise. I've got to hope that will help us in conference play," Stansbury said.
Besides, he said, "You have to find a way to go on the road somewhere along the way and steal a game. That's not going to be an easy task at Tennessee Sunday." Toughest of all is the challenge of checking Lofton and his 22.3-point scoring average. The veteran Vol has been putting up around 30 points in the last few weeks. "His range is in areas you don't guard," Stansbury says. "He's deceptively quick, if you go out and guard him he can put it on the floor. And he's clever knowing how to finish around that rim."
Yet Tennessee isn't a one-man show, and can play both big or even better small with Dane Bradshaw working inside and out. "He's kind of like Jamont Gordon," said Stansbury. "The other guy that's really emerged is JaJuan Smith at the point. He gives them a third perimeter scorer. They can really score points and in bunches. We'll have our hands full up there."
The Volunteers also appear to have some weak points in shooting efficiency on their end and defending on the other that State can try to take advantage of. But to do so will require the Bulldogs getting back in the sort of flow they enjoyed while running out to a 9-2 record…and before leaving friendly territory. Stansbury believes his players have handled the turn of events well, but at the same time worries about after-effects of disappointing defeats.
"It's a fine line with a young team and you lose some games with that confidence. But all the games we've had chances, we just haven't been able to finish like you want." He said the Dogs played well at Clemson and Miami, then played hard—for a while, at least—these past two games before losing some steam, particularly on defense in the late going.
Guard Gordon continues to set the offensive pace with 15.3 points. He is also tops on the team in both rebounds and assists. And while the soph still turns the ball over too often for complete comfort, he actually has a positive ratio of assists-to-turnovers through 13 games. Stansbury isn't ignoring Gordon's faults but points to all that he brings to the court…all over the court.
"He creates mis-matches at the four spot because he can handle it, and he can rebound and defend there with his strength. His greatest ability is his versatility to go back out and play one." Most notably, Stansbury sees Gordon making better decisions this second season in college. "I think he's gotten better in all those areas. In the past he's tried to do too much when that second and third defender come at him. I think he's showing signs of making that pass. And last year he didn't have a lot of guys to pitch it to and make shots."
State has more of those sort of guys now with Barry Stewart (11.6ppg and 29 treys) has joined Reginald (9.3, 21) and Richard (7.4, 16) in the backcourt. After a few weeks without longballs Ben Hansbrough seems to be regaining his own outside touch as well. And of course Gordon has hit 13 treys himself and made them at a 35% accuracy, vastly better than his freshman rate.
Hansbrough has been in the starting lineup the last eight games as an alternate point guard to Gordon, though both Delks also take their turns handling the ball. Stansbury has stuck with a four-guard lineup for a month now and this morning gave no indications of changing. What is of more interest to observers is when or if the coach makes a switch in the one big-man starter. Freshman Jarvis Varnado has opened eight-straight also, and used the opportunity to block a lot of shots and grab some rebounds while scoring seven points per game.
But the skinny rookie has not played in the post the sort of style that bodes well for SEC action, and Stansbury frequently reminds Varnado that in league play those blocked shots and second-chance tip baskets won't come nearly as easily; and that sound position defense is more important to the team now. Huskier soph Vernon Goodridge has played well in the post rotation himself.
The key to SEC success is still getting all-conference forward/center Charles Rhodes back to playing the sort of ball he did as a sophomore, when he scored double-digits in every league game. Rhodes has not started since November 29, when he injured his right wrist late in the Charlotte game. Stansbury says that should not be an issue any longer. "I think Charles still thinks that wrist is bothering him some," he said.
Not in games, though, as once on the court Rhodes puts up points (11.2) and pulls down boards (5.8) quite effectively. The wrist certainly doesn't seem to hurt when he swats a shot aside with that hand, either. Stansbury all but said today that Rhodes will return to the lineup when he puts forth in practice what he does in games.
"He's got to do it in practice every day. It's just getting back to being consistent with that every day coming to practice. And that carries over to the games."
Hopefully, into SEC games where Rhodes should be inspired by facing more familiar competition. And a return to the home court ought to help as well when the Bulldogs open their home SEC slate next Wednesday evening, hosting Mississippi on January 10 at 7:00.