Gator Matchups Mean State Staff Nightmares

The Bulldogs did get their off-day at last. Still it's likely that Mississippi State players spent a fair portion of their Sunday break thinking, talking, and planning for the next game. That's what having the #1 team in the country and defending national champion coming to campus means.

So Coach Rick Stansbury isn't concerned he will have much motivating to do leading up to Wednesday home game with Florida. "You hope every game you get the same level," Stansbury said. "But naturally kids read papers and walk through campus and they know that Florida is number-one in the country.

"From a coaching standpoint we understand it counts as one win and one loss, but from a fan and student standpoint I'm sure there will be another level of energy from our fans and players."

From any standpoint this game (8:00ct, Lincoln Financial telecast) will demand all the energy the Bulldogs can muster, not to mention every bit of ability. And not just because the Gators have the best number in front of their name. For the record this is only the second time a #1-ranked squad has visited Humphrey Coliseum, the last being in January 1978 when top-rated Kentucky came in and won.

Since none of the 2007 Bulldogs were born back then Stansbury won't stress ancient history. He'd rather this bunch of pups make some of their own, though doing so will demand State playing above their heads and beyond their years. The Dogs are now 11-6 overall and 2-2 SEC after out-shooting Auburn in Saturday's win. But the Gators live on the opposite end of the SEC spectrum.

"We know this, we'll have our work cut out for us in here Wednesday night," Stansbury said. "Florida is playing as well as anybody in the country. I'm just amazed at how they all share the ball and pass the ball. Particularly those ‘bigs'." Meaning the Florida frontcourt tandem of 6-11 Joakim Noah and 6-10 Al Horford. These two could certainly play a pure post-game if they wanted…but why waste so much ability in a set-up style? The Gators thrive on end-to-end action and have the perfect roster to do so.

"Then they spread (you) out with shooters, they're very difficult to defend," said Stansbury. "Noah is a nightmare of matchup, the way he runs the floor and gets it off the boards and stars the break, and can post-up. He'll be a lottery pick.

"But they've got a great balance in their team. Lee Humphrey is shooting about 60% from the three-point line, Taurean Green is one of the better points guards in America, and Corey Brewer is a glue-guy. They have no weaknesses, they have great depth, a great perimeter player coming off the bench in Walter Hodge."

While the State staff loses sleep trying to mix matchups, the Bulldogs themselves are eager to get on the same court with the Gators. Particularly a trio of rookies who want to play the best lineup in the league and perhaps again in the country. Since youth doesn't know what it doesn't know, MSU's active freshmen should go into the game ready to take their best shots. And when these kids are on they've been alright.

"They've been a big part of our team," Stansbury said. "We've got two of them averaging over twenty minutes (guards Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough), another (center Jarvis Varnado) has dropped off with an injury the last few weeks." Varnado had been starting in fact, until Saturday when he was replaced in the post by soph Vernon Goodridge. A leg problem was part of the reason for the change, as has been the more talented and more physical competition the skinny freshman has faced since Christmas.

"We'll see today how he's progressing," Stansbury said of Varnado's health. "No question I've been surprised at how well the freshmen have played, if you'd told me Barry and Jarvis would contribute as freshmen with their lack of strength." Stewart, playing all his minutes off the bench, is back up to second in team scoring and topping the lineup in perimeter shooting. And, the coach notes, "he's as good a freshman as we've had here from a standpoint of understanding what's going on and not getting rattled." For his part Hansbrough, also shuffled out of the starting lineup lately, also gets in over half a game and contributes all over the backcourt. "Ben is just a guy who plays with such energy and effort."

Energy and effort will be demanded of all Dogs Wednesday. Yet the coaching staff is also thinking longer-term. At 2-2, State is right in the thick of the SEC West standings…entirely typical for this early in a conference schedule. Yet when Stansbury talks about every game having the same impact on standings, he also means that every loss means having to make up for it somewhere down the league-line. And the margins look to be very, very fine this 2007 season. It could be just like 2003 when State won the West with a 9-7 record.

"If somebody doesn't have the ability to go on the road and win it'll be a bunch of 8-8s," Stansbury said. "That's they key to winning championships, going on the road and winning one or two and separating themselves at 10-6. They will be the teams that separate and win the West." Of course the corollary is just as true, that to do so means defending the home court. So the Bulldogs need to take full advantage of their longest SEC homestand this season, a three-game run ending Saturday when South Carolina comes to town. Then there's the matter of trying to secure West tie-breaks as well.

"No question Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas are favored," Stansbury said of Division projections. "But there are no easy outs. Auburn is much-improved, Ole Miss has all that experience and is playing well. It's going to make it challenging and difficult to see who can go on the road and win a couple."

Meanwhile other talk around the program focuses on the home court. Or, courts. MSU's athletic administration is looking at the potential to both upgrade and add basketball facilities. A long-rumored projection of expanding seating and adding suites to Humphrey Coliseum's has been confirmed by State, though architect's ideas for this project have been sitting in Bryan Building offices for some time and seen by many visitors. The news is that some figures have also been made public, such as adding 5,000 seats and an unspecified total of suites with a major revision to the existing structure.

An adjoining, dedicated-basketball practice gym is also involved in the entire project, which has an estimated price of up to $45 million. Humphrey Coliseum, opened in 1976, had the last major renovation in 1998 that brought capacity to 10,500 by adding a thousand seats in revised floor- and lower-level areas.

From a coaching standpoint the second part of the project is of more urgent interest. Stansbury wants a practice gym to avoid the sorts of off-season conflicts inherent with a Coliseum built by state funding and under University management, not athletic department control. There are several workable alternatives on the campus, and conflicts have actually been fewer than MSU's staff claims. But like any coach Stansbury naturally wants his own floor to completely control.

"When you're trying to do what we've done in the past few years you've got to keep up with the Joneses," he said. "Everybody is getting practice facilities, and a lot of them it's because it's a want and not a need. It's a need for us. It's about recruiting and having good players, and good players want to have the best. You've got to be able to keep up. There's some things we don't have and some things we do, and what we do have we've got to utilize to the best."

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