Very much better. South Carolina comes to campus with a 11-7 overall record and only 1-4 SEC, the worst league record at present. But Coach Dave Odom's team just got on the conference scoreboard last night by beating Arkansas 66-60 in Columbia. Maybe as impressively, the Gamecocks gave a then-healthy Tennessee team all the Vols could handle in Knoxville before losing 64-61.
"We seem to get betting South Carolina not at a good time for us," Stansbury said. "Dave has them playing better, at Tennessee they were right there and they got a good win. He's getting all his pieces and parts back and playing much better." The key piece being Tre Kelly, limited for weeks by an injury but able to put in 35 minutes Wednesday night.
Here in Starkville, for 35 minutes and more the Bulldogs were gunning for an upset of #1-ranked and defending national champions Florida. The Gators were able to break a 62-62 deadlock and build just enough of a lead to avoid the upset, with the key moments distinctly different set-ups for three-point shots. Florida made theirs at 4:24 to grab just enough momentum; the Bulldogs never got their own planned play or shot off as, down three with the clock inside ten seconds, guard Barry Stewart passed up an iffy attempt from the arc and passed to guard Jamont Gordon for a layup at four seconds. State also failed to get off any last-gasp tying attempt with a turnover at the horn.
The loss left State 11-7 and more importantly a SEC game under break-even at 2-3. With West Division rivals LSU, Arkansas, and Alabama (Tuesday night) all also losing midweek games the Bulldogs missed an opportunity to take over first-place in the loop. For now 3-3 Auburn is first in the West, with everyone else owning only two wins and three or four losses. While no one is ignoring the fact of the matchup with the #1 team in the land, it was still a lost chance to seize some higher Division-ground…and those openings become fewer as the season shortens.
Stansbury prefers to look to the positives, at least publicly. "We didn't win the game, but I couldn't have been more proud of the effort," he said Wednesday night. "Naturally you'd like to make one more play here or there, that's what it comes down to."
There were some plusses, some practical and one key intangible. If the Bulldogs were intimidated at all in facing the league- and land-leaders, it did not show. Stansbury praised his squad's aggressive approach, the willingness to go after the Gators and not wait for the champs to play their own game. If the Bulldogs can remain the attacker in contests with more comparable clubs it will serve their season-goals well.
One who certainly showed a new level of aggression was soph center Vernon Goodridge. Re-inserted into the starting lineup with younger and skinnier pivot Jarvis Varnado struggling in SEC matchups, Goodridge came to play. "I thought Vernon was becoming a difference in the game," Stansbury said. "When we went up eight (37-29 early in the second half) after his jump-hook he was playing the best basketball he's played, with the most confidence."
But this break-out evening ended too early as Goodridge fouled out just as he was really impacting things. "We let him pick up this third foul in the first half," Stansbury admitted. "And he picked up two in the first three minutes of the second half." Thus Goodridge managed only 12 minutes total, with four points and four rebounds. Yet this showed how the 225-pound soph can put some strength back in the Bulldog frontcourt, playing alongside F/C Charles Rhodes.
"One thing he's been able to do, he hasn't let the physicalness of the game affect him as much," Stansbury said. "He's been able to rebound against some wide bodies, and that's what this league is made of."
Rhodes had a relatively low-key evening himself with nine points and four boards, and while the junior didn't appear to play as hard as Goodridge he did come close to fouling out after 25 minutes himself. Two other, shorter Dogs who play in the thick of things, Dietric Slater and Gordon, had five and four fouls of their own. "Last night was the first time we were affected by some foul trouble," Stansbury said.
Gordon's personals clearly impacted play, but so did signs of exhaustion midway of the second half. Stansbury had to sit the soph during a crucial stretch because Gordon had been chasing Gator guard and top-scorer Taurean Green all over the court, as well as handling the ball on offense. It took a toll on Gordon's legs and, seemingly, his alertness in the final minute. Gordon also shot 5-of-17 from the floor; and after hitting his first two three-point attempts he missed the next ten shots of all sorts.
Foul troubles were a factor in nine Dogs getting in double-digit minutes, with only Gordon putting in more than 30 (he had 33). That was actually more ‘spread' to the time than Stansbury typically shows since his games tend to have seven players working 20-to-35 minutes and a couple of reserves less than ten. The division of labor(s) for South Carolina, a much more deliberate sort of squad that tries to ‘shorten' games, will be interesting.
One Dog who is getting his minutes, all off the bench, is Slater. The lone active senior at the moment, with upperclassman F Piotr Stelmach still not activated though full-health, Slater inspires the most contradictory impressions on this squad. He gives creative and at time times spectacular plays at each end that likely only he can pull off. Then Slater comes back with a stretch of unwise shots and reckless ballhandling that drives observers to distraction.
To Stansbury's eye the balance sheet comes out a plus. "Dietric brings one thing, energy and effort and toughess. That's two-three things!" the coach said. "Those things are consistent, and that overcomes a lot of limitations he has. There's some good and bad but he plays with extreme effort and that's good. You can live with the effort he plays with."
What the Bulldogs would like to see more of is assertiveness from freshman guard Ben Hansbrough. The rookie gets good minutes and takes care of business handling the ball and guarding his man/area. But since the calendar turned Hansbrough has almost vanished from the scoring list; he has taken 18 shots in five conference games and scored just 19 points. Stansbury says the talented rookie is not being overlooked; just the opposite.
"It's a combination of the opponents you play, the defenses. Because he made some shots in non-conference play there are scouting reports that Ben can shoot the ball. He probably hasn't got as many looks. And point guards in this league defend pretty well."
State is back to work today preparing for the last date in a three-game SEC homestand, the longest such stretch this season. The Dogs will not have consecutive home league games for the rest of the schedule.