Dogs Try To Rebound (And Score) On Home Court

They're back on the home court at last. So now it's up to the Bulldogs to make the most of the expected advantages found in friendly confines. "We're excited just to be back home," Coach Rick Stansbury said Monday morning. "It's been a long road trip for us."

An unsuccessful one, too. But the surest cure to a road-hangover is scoring a win before the home folk, especially against a rival. That's just the situation Mississippi State finds as they prepare to host Mississippi at Humphrey Coliseum Wednesday evening. Gametime is 7:00, with no telecast scheduled. That makes this game the exception as the last nine Bulldog contests have been televised, and 10 of State's 18 SEC games will be shown regionally or nationally.

Of course Stansbury isn't at all concerned with any TV game ‘streak.' What matters is snapping the losing string resulting from three unsuccessful road contests, most recently their Sunday setback in the SEC opener that dropped the Dogs to 9-5 overall.

"We're coming off a hard-fought game against Tennessee," said Stansbury of the 92-84 outcome in Knoxville. And, he noted, "We've got one less day for rest and preparation than normal." Whereas the Rebels, though also coming off an inter-Division loss, did so both on Saturday and at home. But that's just the way the 2007 SEC schedule breaks, and simply being back for a home game for the first time since December 18 should help the Dogs both recover and prepare.

So will familiarity with the opposition. The Rebels (11-4) feature a roster of faces State's staff has seen for a while now. "They have three seniors in their backcourt," said Stansbury. "I think Todd Abernathy has been there ten years!" Not quite, but there is no denying Mississippi's overall edge in total team tenure compared to the younger host squad.

Stansbury doesn't even think having a new coach in charge will bring major changes to UM's game. "It's not a huge difference," he said of Andy Kennedy's club. "They're playing different than in the past but that's every team, every game."

"The biggest difference is they've got great experience with those guards. Abernathy and Bam (Doyne) and (Clarence) Sanders are really playing well for them. And they've got a load inside with big boy (280-pound Dwayne Curtis) and the junior college guy (Kenny Williams) is helping them. We'll have to be at our best Wednesday night to have a chance to win this game."

Stansbury isn't relying too much on the homecourt advantage, either. As he notes, "Six of their eight top players are junior or seniors. Any time you've got experience that helps going on the road."

State could certainly have used some extra experience in their recent road swing, most of all yesterday when the Bulldogs let a late-lead and a strong offensive afternoon go to waste at the end. The 19th-ranked Volunteers, who rely even more on freshmen than does State, rallied to simply out-score the Dogs when it mattered.

"You can point to a lot of plays," Stansbury said. "On the road, particularly against a quality team like Tennessee, you're margin for error is zero. Naturally there's some things we could have done better down the stretch, there's about three plays, two of them we controlled." The coach was referring to a layup by rookie guard Barry Stewart that was blocked when State had a four-point lead; and to a couple of missed free throws by freshman center Jarvis Varnado that would have again stretched a margin. Worse, State fouled on the rebound and when Tennessee missed a second free throw at their end the Vols got the loose ball and hit a long jumper.

Effectively it was a six-point swing that turned the game UT's way to stay. Stansbury also could not resist reminding all of the difference in free throwing, which after some post-game comments Sunday might get him a call from the conference office. Presumably this was the play beyond controlling.

"But for the most part our kids did as well up there as anybody has," Stansbury said. "We handled the pressure, we got easy baskets against their press. But the bottom line is we didn't win. We've got to find ways to do things down the stretch to win those games."

In this the coach was including losses at George Mason and Missouri preceding the SEC opener. The defeat at Missouri stings as much as Sunday's does because in both games the pace played just as much to MSU's strengths as the hosts. And, neither UM nor UT are post-oriented squads, giving State's four-guard lineup about as ideal a matchup as will be found all season.

This is why Stansbury, who places program-pride in playing defense, is interestingly not bothered by the points given up in these last two losses. "I think it's as much the teams, they were both up-and-down the floor and shot it. We're not afraid to play that way." In fact, his team would rather play the game that way as often as possible because it suits this squad's strengths.

"Defensively it hurts us some just from a digging-in and fatigue standpoint playing that way 40 minutes," Stansbury agreed. And indeed it has been in the late going that both Missouri and Tennessee made the decisive plays. The coach could add that this is where experience also can show. "But at the same time it helps us, too. We get out and get some easy baskets. You don't like giving up that many points but give the teams we've played some credit, too."

The morning after a return from Knoxville, the State coach had no comment on what lineup will start Wednesday. The same fivesome has opened nine-consecutive games now with sophs Reginald and Richard Delk and Jamont Gordon in the backcourt, alongside rookie Ben Hansbrough; and another freshman, Varnado, opening at center. But following the game Stansbury complimented the efforts of junior Charles Rhodes who once again came off the bench for a double-digit performance. Rhodes had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting with 10 rebounds, and if not for foul trouble would have likely contributed even more.

Varnado played 16 minutes with two points and five rebounds. Stansbury gave no clues this morning about considering a change in the post, even though the skinny freshman center is finding life tougher against better competition. His coach still has faith in Varnado.

"My biggest concern before the season was his lack of physicalness, he's answered some of those questions. He's not nearly as productive as he will be with added strength and weight but he's still found ways to do things for us." Such as block 36 shots through 14 games. "All he needs is time and weight and strength, but I couldn't be more pleased with what he's done to this point."

With no telecast, Wednesday's game can be heard on the 30-station MSU Basketball Network as well as on Maroon to the Max's audio feed.

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