Bulldogs Still Seek Road SEC Success

It's not something written in their scouting report, nor discussed during drills. In fact the staff would rather not stress the subject at all. The fact remains that going into the second half of SEC schedule, Mississippi State will play five of eight games on the road. And, that Bulldogs hasn't returned from a league road trip victorious in almost two calendar years.

But if State (12-9, 3-5 SEC) is to get back into conference-contention it will demand winning—if not outright stealing—a couple of contests in un-friendly confines. The Dogs have their first two shots at such success this week with trips across the east border, first this Wednesday at Alabama. Gametime is 7:00 at Coleman Coliseum. That's a setting that saw Mississippi State's last great road win, to clinch the 2004 SEC Championship.

Since then? MSU teams are 3-16 in conference away-games and have lost the last eleven trips, three this season. Don't expect to have Stansbury making this a point of practice emphasis, though. "We don't even think about that, as far as what this team's road losing streak is. We understand each game is very difficult to win, home or on the road. What last year's team did has nothing to do with this year's team."

In fact, the Bulldog coach has seen some encouraging signs that the current Dogs aren't burdened by any road-record baggage. "The difference is this team has played close on the road against some people. And there are a couple of guys who were on a team that went 8-0 on the road (in 2003-04) there's just not enough of those guys."

As for the opposition, there are enough guys wearing crimson to be concerned about already. There is an odd perception of this Alabama team which had almost slipped from some minds after struggling in the first month of SEC season. Yet they began the season with eight-straight wins and took 14 of the first 15 contests. And after a couple of awkward losses, the Crimson Tide (17-5) edged LSU on the road and held off South Carolina at home. This pushed 4-4 Alabama out in front of this year's bizarre West standings, back where they were supposed to be all along.

"Alabama seems to be playing better now," Stansbury said. "Definitely they're going to be feeling better about themselves." For his part, the MSU coach isn't feeling good about the impending matchups. "Everybody knows how good they are inside with (Jermareo) Davidson and (Richard) Hendrix, and when (Mykal) Riley makes shots they're as good as anybody in the country."

6-10 senior Davidson certainly is playing as well as anyone anywhere, scoring better in SEC season than the year as a whole. He takes nearly one-quarter of his side's shots and with good reason. "Davidson has gotten better and better," Stansbury said. "Early in his career he was just a long athlete who could block some shots. Now he's developed a back-to-the-basket move that you've got to be able to guard, then he's developed a face-up shot that makes him that much harder to guard.

"Then you have Hendrix (6-8 soph) on the other side, he's 260 pounds and has great hands and gets great positioning on offensive rebounding. And obviously he's gotten better offensively. They present different problems in different ways, but in combination they're as good as anybody."

For their part the Bulldogs were as good as they've been in weeks Saturday, beating visiting LSU 85-78 to snap a three-game losing string. Though still two losses under break-even State is only one good night from getting into the loop-leaders as well. That's just how frenzied this West is going into the second half. So the Dogs still have their shot…especially if they can make the sorts of shots as Saturday when State riddled the Tigers for 13 treys in 27 tries.

Stansbury claims no credit for the excellent accuracy. Nor for how a trio of struggling Dog-shooters broke out of personal slumps and were on-target in what all realized was a must-win afternoon at Humphrey Coliseum. Sophomore Delk twins Reginald and Richard had been a combined 3-of-18 at the arc in the team's three-straight losses. Against LSU, Reginald went 5-of-6 and Richard 3-of-5.

"If I knew how to get them to shoot it like that every game, it absolutely makes us better," Stansbury said. So did the contributions of rookie guard Barry Stewart, who hit a pair of longballs after missing eight-straight through three-plus games. It would have been easy to pin the blame for a losing streak on poor perimeter production, particularly in three-point losses at home to Florida and South Carolina. But the staff didn't put that sort of pressure on the youngsters. Just the opposite. "I always encourage shooters to keep shooting," Stansbury said.

"You've got to be tough-minded enough. You can't be timid when you shoot it. Naturally that comes with the more experience you have. The best way to free your mind is play another role, try to rebound and play harder defensively and not think about that shot. But as a young man that's hard to do because they know it's a primary role. Particularly for Reggie, he's been a shooter all his life."

Stansbury has a comparable sort of message for a bigger Dog. Not that the coach wants Charles Rhodes taking perimeter shots, of course; they are telling the forward/center to get back to playing the complete game. "Defense and rebounding are two things that have to be constant. That's two things we're in control of and are about effort. It's our job to get Charles to play with that effort every possession."

Interestingly, Stansbury left the court Saturday pleased with the junior's exertions. He had selected good shots, hit six-of-eight, and scored 13 points. Rhodes had also blocked three balls, so he wasn't playing timid against the Tigers. Then the coach saw the stat sheet.

"I thought he played hard, to just get two rebounds and zero defensive is shocking." Rhodes didn't garner a single defensive board in 33 minutes. True, LSU shot well at 53% so opportunities were limited, and G Jamont Gordon got to seven caroms…often thanks to block-outs by his bigger teammate. But two rebounds for Rhodes, and a negative-ten margin for the whole team on their own court isn't a formula for success. "Particularly when we're playing small, he's got to be your primary rebounder."

In the last five games Rhodes has a total of 20 rebounds, clearly far off his potential and likely a factor in the losses. At the same time Stansbury sees his All-SEC junior working, moving, and generally trying. And, doing it more within a team context.

"His last game, even though he didn't rebound well he played with great effort, he defended well. That's a plus. The other night I thought he kept playing and helped the perimeter guys get some jump-shots." And some good shots of his own, for that matter. Now it's a matter of taking ‘great' to the next level, Stansbury said. "We need him to play with extreme effort. That's the area I'm on him all the time. Shooting maybe be there or not, but rebounding and defense have to be constant. You've got to rebound every possession."

Which will be a factor in Mississippi State's chance to ‘rebound' from a long dry-spell in SEC road trips. Not that the coaches want their kids considering the past at this point. "It's about this one game and that's what I want them thinking about."


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