"That's what a fine line it is from being up in the West and being where we're at," said Stansbury this morning. Where State (12-10, 3-6 SEC) is at, is alone in fifth in the Division as they prepare for the week's second road-trip across the eastern border. The Bulldogs visit Auburn for a 1:00 game Saturday.
A contest, moreover, that both West squads know is must-win if either wants to retain serious hopes of March contention. "Both teams are in search of trying to find a way to win," Stansbury said. Auburn (14-11, 4-6) is coming off a 65-57 Wednesday loss at Arkansas. Yet just a week ago the Tigers were in front of the Division.
"They've got a good team," said Stansbury. "I know he's coming off a couple of tough losses, one at home and one on the road. We had a tough game with them the first time." A game won by the host Bulldogs 87-76."
If Auburn's sudden tumble is curious, it really is an accurate reflection of just how bizarre the SEC West has been for five frantic weeks. Alabama's win over the Bulldogs pushed the Tide into first place, yet the 18th-ranked club in the country is still only 5-4 SEC and by Saturday evening could just as easily find themselves back in third place (on tie-breaks) if they lose at Ole Miss and Auburn beats the Bulldogs.
For that matter a win at Auburn would have State a game out of .500 SEC again and tied for third…or even second. That's the sort of race this has been and likely will remain into March. "I've been in this league 17 years," Stansbury said. "Two-through-twelve it's the best it's ever been. One (Florida) has totally separated itself, but 2-through-12 I don't know how much difference there is in any of those teams. The team that can go on the road and find a way to win one or two games is going to be the team that separates itself from the pack."
Which brings back up the still-stinging subject of Wednesday night. "That's one we let get away from us that you've got to find a way to win," the coach said.
"I hate it for my kids. Our kids fought and fought. You're on the road, we've played through a lot of adversity, losing some close games, and we're on the road playing basically for first place in the league. We didn't do a couple of little things you've got to do." Specifically, missing two of four free-throw chances—one of them by the team's best marksman on the stripe—in the late seconds, and then failing to stop or even challenge a simple end-to-end layup drive for the game-winner. Yes, Stansbury says, it hurts, particularly for a team in State's sensitive situation.
"That's the fourth game we've had the ball with a chance to tie or win it in the conference in the last minute, and none of those games have gone our way. That's what makes it so difficult, it's a league with so much balance. You win one or two of those games and you're sitting in first place. But I like the way our kids played. We out-rebounded a very good Alabama team playing small, we had 14 assists, six or seven turnovers. All those are positive things. But again, we didn't find a way to make that one more play and that's my responsibility. I've got to find a way to get that done."
One Dog who was getting it done at Tuscaloosa was sophomore guard Jamont Gordon. The team's leading scorer all season, Gordon had a career-night with 27 points and nine rebounds to go with a couple of assists, a block and a steal. "And one turnover," Stansbury noted. "He was just a warrior." For that matter the soph has been battling his best in his second SEC season, scoring double-digits eight of the nine games. He has averaged 16.7 points in league games compared to his overall season average of 15.9, and led his team in rebounding consistently. While also playing primarily on the point, too.
"He's gotten better and better all year," Stansbury said. "His assist/turnover ratio is positive. And one thing that never shows up in the stat sheet is the toughness he plays with every possession." Other Dogs played about as hard as Gordon, if not quite as efficiently. Senior guard Dietric Slater, just moved into the starting lineup last week, scored 13 points with eight boards. And though he missed a crucial free-pitch late, rookie guard Ben Hansbrough hit a trio of treys to keep State's offense running. He also played more minutes than usual on the point and posted five assists.
Yet State ended up relying probably too much on perimeter play, taking 30 three-point attempts out of the 65 shots. Only 16 points came from the post-player rotation. Rhodes started at center in a four-guard lineup but took just seven shots, scoring eight points, and grabbed five rebounds. Rhodes did pick up a couple of early fouls but his twenty total minutes were not what the team needed. Particularly as less-experienced or less-skilled backups Jarvis Varnado and Vernon Goodridge could not cope with an Alabama low-post tandem that combined for 39 points and 21 rebounds.
Stansbury also has to worry about other underclassmen who are struggling here in February. Such as freshman guard Stewart, who went 1-of-5 shooting and a most uncharacteristic 3-of-6 on the line. The stresses and strains of a rookie college season usually show by now of course, and the coaching staff has been here before. They know how to get the kids through this inevitable stage in their careers.
But keeping the entire team focused on the present, especially one that has lost four of the last five games and hasn't enjoyed any SEC-road success, is another sort of coaching challenge. Stansbury says first-and-foremost is to set aside private frustrations and not let it show to the kids.
"My personal emotions will always bounce back. I understand the fine line with that. I hurt for the team, it's my responsibility to find a way for the team to make that one more play. One more free throw, one less turnover, one more stop. It's my job to find a way to help them make that one more play."