That's the bottom-line fact of life in the wild West these February days, with no exaggeration required. Quite literally any of the six squads in this Division could, with a strong stretch run and some timely if unintended help, find themselves seeded first from the West at Atlanta. Or just as easily in the Division cellar with no realistic hopes of post-season play.
By breaks of the conference schedule two teams sharing the West's middle-ground meet this week when Mississippi State (13-10) hosts Arkansas (15-9) at Humphrey Coliseum, Game time is 7:00 with no telecast, which is a shame considering that the Dogs and Hogs take the floor sharing West third-place at 4-6. One will walk off either still third or possibly tied for second, maybe even first if both Ole Miss and Alabama lose their games.
The loser will fall at least to fourth and perhaps lower. So, as Stansbury said, "Both of us are in need of wins so we know it will be a very difficult game for us Wednesday night." All the more difficult because defeat will deal a grave blow to post-season bid plans for either, especially a State team that must finish the schedule strong to earn any selection respect.
Yet just to be in an optimistic state at this juncture of the schedule is something of a success for the Bulldogs, who a couple of weeks ago teetered on the verge of falling utterly out of contention. True, they have been aided to no small degree by failures among West peers. Nobody has succeeded in securing the Division high ground, yet. At the same time Mississippi State has not folded and faded from view. Stansbury saw the team's ability to recover from three-straight losses, particularly a home defeat by South Carolina, as one emotional milestone.
Another came Saturday when State shrugged off an eight-point deficit at Auburn and came back for a crucial win…their first SEC road victory since 2005, in fact. "It was a much-needed win just from a confidence standpoint for our team," Stansbury said.
"It's been well-documented how close we've been on the road all year long. Most of them we've had a chance, and when you have a team like ours with some youth you can only go to that well so many times. Our kids fought back after a tough loss (by one point at Alabama) and played with the toughness and emotion and poise they did at Auburn. Particularly when we outscored them 16 points, I thought we did that with our ability to step up and defend and rebound. The first half they shot like 68%, the second half 38%."
Of course the State staff would prefer not to let anyone shoot that well in either half. Letting the Razorbacks produce that efficiently would be all the more dangerous because, unlike Auburn, this lineup has size and strength to go with shooters. While the Bulldog team tops the SEC in blocking shots, Arkansas features the top swatter in 7-0 Steven Hill, perhaps the most-improved player in the Division or even league this season. With 250-pound Darian Townes and 6-8 Charles Thomas this is as physical a front line as the Dogs will see.
"They present so many problems," said Stansbury. "They're so big inside, they've got as much depth and when Hill plays well they seem to go to another level." The arrival of guard Patrick Beverley has raised UA's backcourt to another level as well, with Stansbury calling him one of the best freshmen in the country. "They've got great balance and a mixture of experience, particularly on that front line."
But it's another experienced Hog who will draw the most calls from the Hump crowd this week, as guard Gary Ervin returns to his first SEC school. The junior played two seasons for State, including as the backup point on the 2004 conference championship team and as a starter in 2005. He transferred out that summer, settling on Arkansas as a second chance, and after a redshirt season has played well for the Razorbacks and led the SEC in assists.
"Sometimes things just don't work out for the best," Stansbury said of his prize 2003 signee out of Brooklyn. "Both player and program have to move on. He's a good kid, unfortunately it didn't work out for us." All the more unfortunate given State's inconsistencies in ball-handling the past two seasons, and the lack of a single upper-classman guard on this roster. The Bulldogs' loss has been Arkansas' gain.
"He's a good little player," Stansbury said. "I haven't watched him all year long. He's very quick and it's obvious he's best in transition. And he's experienced, he's a fourth-year player now."
The Bulldogs hope their own more-experienced personnel come to the fore Wednesday. After being held largely in-check by Alabama's bruising front line, Charles Rhodes dominated a smaller Auburn squad. He scored 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting and muscled for six rebounds. Four other Dogs had double-digit points, with G/F Jamont Gordon netting 19 and freshman Barry Stewart snapping his shooting slump with four three-pointers.
Yet Rhodes remains the key cog if State wants to start a stretch-run successfully against Arkansas. "It's that way every game," Stansbury said. "Everybody has good players inside, so we need our best every night in this league. No question when Charles plays his best it helps the team because you're getting such a high-percentage shot, first and second shots. That's important in this league and allows you to get to the foul line some. We need him to play big for us."
As well as the rest of the roster, because the Bulldogs do have an opportunity to make something of this season. The difference is now they have to maximize every remaining chance.
"We've done it the hard way, that's for sure, keeping ourselves in position," Stansbury said. "We could have separated ourselves a couple of times. Right now there's six games left for most people and the games are taking more shape."