Starting with a home game against Louisiana State. By coincidence both the Bulldogs (11-9) and Tigers (13-8) bring matching 2-5 SEC records to Humphrey Coliseum for Saturday's 4:00 tipoff. When the final horn sounds somebody will be alone on bottom of the league ladder.
"We're both in bad need of a win," Stansbury said. "I know they're probably still stinging from last night's game, but just like us." LSU is coming off a 73-70 defeat on their home court by Alabama, where State is two days removed from a 85-73 road loss at Ole Miss. It was MSU's third-straight defeat and seventh in the last nine games. As for the Tigers, they lost a fourth-consecutive contest (two at home) and have just fallen out of the rankings.
Still, "This LSU team is as good as any team in the conference, even if they have lost a couple of games lately," said Stansbury. With a core from the 2006 Final Four squad still playing in purple-and-gold, if not playing as well as last March, these Tigers certainly can be as good as most. And their veterans also have four-straight wins over Mississippi State including two successful trips to Humphrey Coliseum on their resumes.
Success has evaded State of late. Stansbury said the first loss in the current skid, 70-67 to #1-ranked Florida, was not deflating itself. But the emotional letdown did contribute to a three-point loss to South Carolina, and the Bulldogs could not make the fast turnaround needed to handle the Rebels on their floor Tuesday.
"You sit around when you lose some games and try to think about everything," said Stansbury. "We were talking yesterday, we were seven-eight days removed from coming out of a game we didn't win but feeling as good as you can. Up to that point we'd won every game we were supposed to in SEC." Then came the South Carolina loss. Suddenly a squad that had been playing pretty competitive ball even in defeat is scrambling to get out of the league cellar.
Which has the coach trying to keep everyone calm. "I don't want to panic with losses, there's only one we've lost that we weren't supposed to. We made some others (Tennessee and Kentucky) disappointing because we played them so close. That's the thing that's frustrating. Three of those we've got the ball in our hands to tie or win the last 20 seconds. So it's a fine line."
So then how do the Dogs get on the right side of that line? Saturday wraps up the first half of SEC season and in post-season terms State can ill-afford to end it last in the West and barely above break-even overall. A fine line can also mean no margin for error.
The obvious questions arise about an offense that still ranks in the middle of the league statistically but has scored in the 60s three games of the last five. And more to the matter, not been able to put up the clutch baskets in decisive situations. Stansbury can agree with that analysis up to a ‘point.'
"Naturally there's things we could do better in those games, some ending-situations at Tennessee and Kentucky that you've got to improve on. The thing we haven't done well lately is make timely shots. We've had some good shots, even in the Florida game we had good shots. The same way in the South Carolina game. But after a while when you play a lot of close games you've got to look and find ways to change something."
Which means basic things that perhaps these Dogs have begun taking for granted. "I don't think we're as good at rebounding the ball and defending the way we were at one time," Stansbury said. Again, the stat sheets usually can look good. State has actually led the SEC in field-goal defense for several weeks (all games included) and rebounded quite respectively. But the coach isn't judging the squad simply off a stat sheet. It's not how many boards or stops the Bulldogs get, it's the times and types of those plays that matter more the way recent games have played out.
"I come back to being able to defend and rebound more consistently throughout the game," the coach said. "Then maybe it doesn't come down to won play at the end." He pointed to three critical chances in the Ole Miss game when the hot-shooting Rebels did miss in the second half. All three caroms were recovered by the shooting squad, denying the Dogs chances to catch up.
"We're playing small, but we've got to have more rebounding from our inside guys," Stansbury said. State has started 6-8 Charles Rhodes and 6-9 Vernon Goodridge the last four games, but more often—particularly after halftime—gone back to the four-guard set used to open SEC season. One result is the Bulldogs have been beaten on the boards the last three games and only managed to tie a much shorter Auburn squad in total rebounds.
Stansbury is clear who is having board-work emphasized this week. "Charles has to become more of a rebounder for us. Six, seven is not good enough. That's an area we've got to get better at. In those close losses one rebound here and there is the difference in winning and losing." And because State will keep playing ‘small' many minutes 6-4 guard Jamont Gordon will have to help out on the glass at each end.
Gordon has no problems asserting himself around the rack. But the perception is that the junior is a bit too eager to show his offensive stuff; Gordon has taken 17, 11, and 15 shots in the last three SEC losses, making 16. A 37% accuracy isn't good enough, especially if it's barely better than his 33% rate at the arc in these same contests. Yet Stansbury is not showing any signs of trying to rein-in the team's leading scorer and most frequent fierer.
"Jamont is a competitor. He's fighting every possession out there to do some things. I can live with that. That's what we want our guys to do, fight. It's not about scoring, it's about defending and rebounding, the things in the toughness category you have to do."
Because, Stansbury adds, "When some things aren't working as well as you were, shooting, you've got to find other things. You have to come back to your backbone, things we've always been good in this program at." So while the State staff has given thought to adjusting the starting lineup and rotations, the head coach continues to stress his theme of consistent effort which to his mind will pay off when it counts most.
"When you lose some games you think about everything. You just want to get one play better in all those games." Or, as he drew another parallel from the laboratory, he wants the Bulldogs to nudge the internal thermostat up a bit. "It's like water boils at 212 degrees, it doesn't boil at 211 degrees. We've got to find a way to get one more degree."