Of course what is of more immediate interest, if not outright anguish, is can Mississippi State get to the end of this SEC schedule with a break-even record. Not so much because it could take the West; at this pressurized point that's now a back-burner thought. But because the Bulldogs are quickly building up a serious post-season credit deficit. They are 2-4 SEC with ten league games left, six on the road where at the moment State must be considered under-Dogs in at least five of ‘em. And no use griping about the lousy schedule break that brings a very short recovery-time from Saturday's huge letdown.
Yes, the Bulldogs brought some remnants of Florida hangover to The Hump yesterday. No, that's not an acceptable exuse for losing to a South Carolina squad that had just gotten their first conference conquest. And came with the worst stats in every SEC category of note. And playing the shortest, numerically and physically, roster in the league. And was on the freaking road where you aren't supposed to win per perceived SEC regulations, if not outright officiations. All the Gamecocks did was shake off a tough first quarter, about the only stretch where the Bulldogs looked truly interested in playing basketball, and win at the end.
This one hurts. Perceptionally and practically alike, this loss was a body-blow to Bulldog plans for March. Which we have to admit are sliding perilously close to ‘hopes' now. At 11-8 overall State has to split the remaining ten games just to be assured of leaving the SEC Tournament still over .500. Do the math. Just winning the four home games left means a 15-14 mark going to Atlanta, and a first-round loss would have State at the same 15-15 record that wasn't good enough for NIT notice last March. And with no ‘name' wins from November/December, as well as all the other SEC squads likely to be in the same .500 ballpark after Atlanta, breaking even might not be sufficient for a bid this time either.
The frustrating thing is, 2-4 is actually only one game different from what we would reasonably have thought the Bulldogs should be starting this week. But what a huge difference one game is making in the chaos that is the SEC standings of January 2007. 3-3 would be sitting relatively pretty today no matter what LSU does at Georgia. (I'm writing this just after noon, having been a good Baptist in the morning, while watching the Daytona 24 wrap up; way to go MSU alum Jim Pace, your Porsche team finished third in the GT Class!) Coaches dread the ‘must win' label on any regular-season game but by most measures this was one if State was to stay on an optimistic pace.
Now? What's the next stage past ‘must win'? Because that is exactly what Tuesday's battle with the Rebels has become, especially for a Dog team that simply must steal a road win somewhere. And soon. Of course it's at least as important for Ole Miss which sees all sorts of potential in their next four dates to improve their own post-season standing. And, for a new Rebel coach who sees a gilded chance to undercut Mississippi State's preeminent position in the state of the last half-dozen years.
While leaving The Hump around 10:30 last night I was pondering just why this team is playing the way it is. Why for stretches the Bulldogs look like contenders, suddenly to turn into pretenders. And it has little if anything to do with lineup changes. Any fivesome Coach Rick Stansbury puts on-court is entirely capable of pulling a Jekyll /Hyde act without warning. I know, I know, there's that youth thing we tend to blame most ills on. Except this squad isn't so much younger on the whole than the rest of the league, and a certain West squad with more experience than most is suddenly stinking things up.
Keep in mind that any analysis here will over-generalize, with clear exceptions to every speculation. But a few facts do seem apparent at this late-January point. There's a lack of club cohesion costing the Dogs dearly in too many situations. And not just obvious ones in late minutes; I mean in those earlier stretches when a theme or trend or tone is set for the whole game. When Stansbury stresses consistency of effort from his players it's not that he expects 40 productive minutes, nice as that would be. It's because a team can never know what point in play will be decisive. A one-point game is often as not won, or lost, sometime in the second ‘quarter', or the early moments of the whole last half. Sorta like that third-down conversion in the first quarter that might not produce points but changes field position, tactics, substitution patterns, everything for the rest of the day.
Such inconsistency sets up another aspect, that this team hasn't got anything like what we used to call a killer instinct. They don't put people away, or not SEC people. There was no reason for either of the two wins, over Ole Miss and Auburn, to finish as close as they did. More glaring, last night State had a 12-point lead and could have, should have delivered a knockout punch. True, Tre Kelly is a great college guard and might have stuck the three no matter the defensive intensity. But there was no call to add the foolish foul after the ball was airborne for a four-point play that to my mind turned everything around.
If I must guess at a more fundamental issue stopping State from success, though, it might as well be the intangible of leadership. There isn't much out there on the court these days, or not of the right sort. I have to believe this is a reflection of the particular personalities on this roster, further impacted by the ages involved. I'm sorry if I come across vaguely on this bit but it's a very hard thing to define even by those involved. The best I can say it, a couple of guys who ought to be team leaders aren't filling the role, and maybe a couple who should be sidekicks are trying to be the top Dogs. If this doesn't make sense, feel free to come up with your own explanations. I could use the help.
I can add something we all recognize, that since the Kentucky game Charles Rhodes has settled too often for a supporting role at each end of the floor. Yeah, defenses focus on State's best inside player. But they did last year, too, and he never failed to get double-digits. The last three games, on the home court no less, he's taken eight, seven, and eight shots. And I throw out two of ‘em because they were un-wisely from the arc. While not encouraging reckless gunnery by any means, an All-SEC player with the skills to score needs to be more assertive on offense. And while Charles is adding to his swat-total he's only grabbed 11 total rebounds the last three games.
Rhodes seems to realize the need for him to step it up. He talked last night about everybody needing to give more effort, and I asked directly did he include himself? "Most definitely," he responded without a blink. "I'm a captain on this team, anything that happens on the court is my responsibility." If he puts words into deeds it bodes well. So does the situation; check how he produced big numbers in the last three meetings with Mississippi.
In tough times there are inevitably howls to shake up the lineup, the rotation, anything to make it seem a coach is doing, well, something. I don't see such necessity for now, at least not as far as the tip-off team. And not Tuesday considering the matchups, where State needs more muscle around the rim than against less physical opposition like Auburn, Tennessee, South Carolina, et.al. Though, when the Gamecocks went zone Vernon Goodridge and Rhodes almost vanished from the gameplan, hmmm. Nor, to address the object of most ire these days, am I bothered too much by the number and types of shots Jamont Gordon takes. Believe what you want, his selection and accuracy are both better than last year, though that's to be expected from a soph. It's the TIMING of some of those attempts causing conniptions in the gameplan. Gordon is picking his shots well enough, it's the spots that needs adjusting to circumstances. Like maybe tossing the ball into Rhodes and Goodridge a bit more often, eh? Though this gets back to that aforementioned assertiveness issue; maybe some Dogs don't look as long and hard inside now because the big Dog hasn't demanded the ball often enough. We could ponder and write in such circles for hours.
Oh, and as for getting Barry Stewart or Ben Hansbrough into the starting lineup? Not yet, especially for Stewart. He's surely State's best perimeter threat, and last off-night was inevitable so don't sweat it for now. But he's also still a growing boy needing more muscle to handle the beating a guard takes in this league, this level. I like him off the bench just fine for now, not because it saves the legs so much as it spares the rest of the body cumulative damage from the elbows, forearms, etc. When the time is right to start Stewart, he will. Ditto for Hansbrough, who is more physically ready but still very much learning how to play his eventual position. Remember, he was NOT a point guard in high school.
Speaking of the backcourt, it was during that drive home that another explanation for these struggles emerged. How is this team most different from Stansbury's successful squads? While Rhodes isn't a stout-body like Mario Austin or Lawrence Roberts he's a capable SEC frontcourt man in his own right. One thing that is missing is that ‘complementary' big body beside the inside scorer, yet this is because Gordon is playing the perimeter instead of on the baseline. He has to, too, so don't look for a change there.
But to find one consistent fact, look out top. When State was contender and champion from 2002-05, there was always at least one junior/senior who could shoot, handle, defend, and most of all make the entire team function. And it wasn't until guys like Marckell Patterson, Derrick Zimmerman, Timmy Bowers, Shane Power, Winsome Frazier, et.al. became third- and fourth-year Dogs that they could fill such roles. Oh, they could play ball as freshmen and sophs; but team-leadership only came in the fullness of time. And with winning tight games as supporting players before assuming greater responsibilities.
Sophs Gordon and the Delks haven't had that experience or success yet. Stewart and Hansbrough are rookies. They need time, which they'll get. Of course by this formula they'll also need some big wins, and that's a harder issue as these kids aren't benefiting from a wealth of old-Dog help as their predecessors did, so that's sort of problematic. You'll no doubt notice the lack of mention of a certain senior on this team who plays a fair bit at guard, too. I like Dietric Slater personally, and enjoy what he can do when he's on his game. But ohhhh, when he's off it, that reckless energy and raw explosiveness can make a bad situation worse. It's the tradeoff Stansbury must accept, and when it works nobody can make the sorts of plays Slater can.
Has another name come to any minds (still) reading this? Yeah. Mississippi State was supposed to have one of those veteran guards this year, a playmaker and creator and scorer as needed. And he's doing it this year, too, just for another SEC West team. Not that Gary Ervin would necessarily be leading the league in assists if he were still in Starkville, instead of Fayetteville, or that he would be any better fit with the sorts of personnel and psyches in this locker room. In fact over the long haul I suspect State will be glad his scholarship went to one of this year's youngsters. But it just goes to show that you never can know.
And, what can happen when the kids we may be cussing today mature into a ballplayers ready, able, and willing to win games.