"There's not much time to feel sorry for yourself. You've got to get off the mat and go play a much-improved and very good Ole Miss team."
The State staff could clearly use the normal preparation-days this particular week. And not only because the Bulldogs are about to see a better and more confident Rebel team than the one they defeated 77-67 twenty days before. But because this team really is tempted to some self-pity after a three game home-stand that didn't play out as planned. State began well enough with a win over Auburn. But after a huge emotional build-up and last-second letdown against #1-ranked Florida last Wednesday, the team had little left to use against South Carolina and lost 66-63.
"We allowed a loss against Florida and it caused us to lose another game," Stansbury said. "You can't do that." But the Dogs did and find themselves 2-4 SEC, 11-8 overall, and in a serious situation both conference- and NCAA tourney-wise. While everybody in the SEC West is under .500 with at least four league losses, State is the only Division club with two home losses. Against Eastern teams, yes, but still losses on the home court.
And now the Bulldogs play six of the remaining ten games on the road. So while Stansbury repeats the theme that all games count the same in the standings, some matter more in the mindset. "There's ten games left and it's never good to lose a home game in this league. It's so difficult to go on the road and win." State hasn't taken a road SEC win since March 2005, losing the last ten trips.
Until last year Oxford wasn't too terribly difficult for Dog teams, with State taking three-straight victories there from 2003-05. The Rebels regained control of the home court with a 75-65 last January. Now they will shoot for a similar outcome in Coach Andy Kennedy's first turn hosting the rivals on his floor, as well as a split of the season series. For that matter Ole Miss (13-8, 2-5 SEC) might have some higher goals in mind. Though they've lost three of their last four games the Rebels have been competitive, home or away.
Even that ten-point margin at Starkville wasn't entirely representative, as Ole Miss was within a point midway of the last half. Four Rebs scored in double-digits and if a few more of the 32 trey-tries tossed up had dropped things would have been very interesting. Stansbury isn't counting on Ole Miss mis-firing as often on their own court.
"When Clarence Sanders makes shots he seems to be the guy that when he's on really gives them a boost offensively. He's one of those bad-shot makers, he takes some bad shots and makes some. You've got to guard their perimeters, absolutely, and inside Dwane Curtis is a load. So they've got great balance. And they've got great experience with Todd Abernathy and Bam Doyne, it's showing on the road. They're a good, solid basketball team right now."
By this point State had expected to be better on the scorebook, and much more solid on offense. But the Bulldogs have become maddeningly inconsistent at that end of the floor. The numbers aren't entirely awful; 43% shooting in the last three games, 32% at the arc, and surprisingly a positive assist/turnover ratio win or lose. In fact the Dogs have lost the ball only 16 times the last two games; that is usually a single night's work for this team.
Yet something has been missing. Such as rebounding; it was no surprise that Florida beat the Bulldogs on the boards, but for South Carolina to out-rebound State 37-29 was inexcusable. That hints at the bigger issue of inconsistency around the basket at both ends. Stansbury is unhappy with lack of production in the paint, offense and defense alike. In the last two losses the three post players--Charles Rhodes, Vernon Goodridge, and Jarvis Varnado--have combined for 29 points and 22 rebounds. Again, not terrible but also not enough. Stansbury said upgraded post-production is a subject of stress this week.
"But we haven't done a good job from both standpoints," he adds. "Sometimes the perimeter is a little quick to shoot it, and sometimes our inside guys don't continue to fight and hold their position. We've got to do a better job there on both sides, perimeter and posts."
One big Dogs who is doing a better job is Goodridge. He became the starting center three games ago and while his sheer stats don't raise eyebrows the second-year junior is gradually catching on and catching up. "There's no substitute for experience," Stansbury said. "He came in with very limited basketball experience, very limited basketball I.Q. He's getting more comfortable out there and you see a play here or there every game he's showing something a little different. We just need him to keep progressing." Goodridge's progress has allowed former starting center Varnado to play off the bench and not get overpowered as often in the second half, something the skinny freshman was prone to before.
State needs all the strength, speed, skill, everything it can assemble if they are to make up lost ground in this chaotic Division race. Especially now that most of the games are away from home. Until Arkansas knocked off Alabama on Saturday, no West team had won a SEC road game. In fact there have only been ten road wins total in the league as a whole. But to get back into contention the Bulldogs have to forget that stat and buck that trend. The West will be won on the road.
"And it doesn't look right now like you've got to win a whole lot," Stansbury said. "Anybody who can do that is going to separate themselves."