Bulldogs Will Stay Busy During Free Week

The SEC schedule is giving Mississippi State a mid-week with no ball games. But this does not mean the Bulldogs will get to enjoy a week-off. Not according to the boss. "We'll work and we'll work hard," Coach Rick Stansbury said Monday morning.

This all the more true because, only eight days and three games into SEC season, Stansbury would prefer not to have an open date at all. The Bulldogs aren't tired and, despite a 1-2 league record (10-6 overall), have played some good ball since conference action began. Both setbacks have been last-minute battles on the road with State coming up short by eight points at Tennesse and four officially but two actually at Kentucky.

So this break could turn into a break in the ball club's progression if not handled properly. Thus Stansbury will treat the week with a business-as-usual attitude. Almost.

"You wish you didn't have it this early, this soon in the season," Stansbury said. "You'd like it to come at the halfway point or a little later. But that's the way it is. We'll use this week to try to do some little things individually to get better, and get the team better. Then get ready to play Saturday." State returns to action with a 2:00 home game against Auburn, the first of three consecutive dates in Humphrey Coliseum and start of the longest SEC homestand this season.

"We told the team yesterday about individually getting better, whether it's conditioning or free throw shooting," Stansbury said. "Then as a whole, just use the week as a team to get better. I don't know if we'll have a day-off, I'll make that decision as the week goes on." Which sounds as if any down-time depends on practice production by the Bulldogs themselves.

It's a good approach considering what the team has experienced early in the league campaign, and more importantly what sort of team this is. The coaching staff is in an interesting situation; their team has played hard and at times well, not just in the two league road losses but in preceding setbacks during the holidays at George Mason and Missouri. Yet the only victory to show came last Wednesday with a 77-67 home win over Ole Miss, a game which arguably might have been the poorest showing of the stretch in terms of efficiency.

So, how to evaluate the state of State in mid-January? More directly, how to handle a team that keeps coming close without finishing the task? Stansbury agrees that it's a fine line he and the staff must walk this week.

"You don't want to make excuses for your players and you never accept defeat. We're not going to let that be a reason to not be successful, I don't want our players to accept moral victories. But being realistic, I understand where my team is and what they're doing right now. I'm proud of the way we're playing, effort-wise. We've been to two of the toughest places in the country and our team has had the chance in the closing moments."

Chances the Bulldogs couldn't convert on, whether it was getting a crucial rebound at Tennessee or creating a tying—or winning—shot in the single-digit seconds at Kentucky. One other common thread there could be overlooked in the frustration, Stansbury notes: the ‘road' part. Only Kentucky (at Ole Miss) and Florida (at South Carolina) have claimed SEC road wins to-date. So there is no shame in falling short where the Dogs did.

But neither can there be meek acceptance of failure in the crunch. It's back to that fine line the coach has to walk with a team currently with only one senior and one junior available. Stansbury wants to push this squad as hard as possible this week, but not too hard. "As a coach, experienced teams understand the mental part and are not as fragile. Younger teams are more fragile and we have to be careful with that."

"I've got to find positive things for the team to draw on mentally, but which are factual. I'm not trying to create things just to keep confidence up, just the fact that our team has been in games against very good teams on the road." Without, he adds, letting the Bulldogs be content with coming close. "Now we've got to draw from that. There's a lot of positives, and keep working harder. Let's correct a play here or there that makes the difference, and not just the one or two plays at the end that are magnified. It's the whole game."

That latter comment shows the coach has heard fan-frustration over how State has tried to set up action in the end-game settings. His response is that while the Bulldogs can certainly improve how they handle, or attack, such situations, the final score actually depends more often on events much earlier. Eliminating a turnover here, making a free throw there, chasing down a loose ball or getting to that defensive rebound will mean it is Mississippi State playing the final seconds from the position of strength instead of trying to manufacture a basket against a prepared defense.

Another reason Stansbury wants to work the squad hard this week is just that they do have that three-game homestand coming up, and it's something the Bulldogs must take full advantage of. Especially this year and this team.

"That's why you have to protect the home court and try to steal one on the road, somewhere. That's the way it's always been in this league. One-through-twelve the league is the best it's been in a long time, there are not games you can point to home or away and say we're going to get this one for sure."

In other Bulldog basketball news, guard Barry Stewart was named the SEC's Freshman of the Week after scoring 21 points and hitting four three-point baskets with eight rebounds in State's two games. Stewart is second among SEC freshmen in scoring average at 11.5 points per game for the season, and ranks in the league's top-ten overall in three-pointers made and shooting percentage.

"He's had two pretty good games and good games in the past," Stansbury said. "Anything Barry Stewart gets is well-deserved, and I think there will be many, many more of those things for him."


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