The Commodores are on a late-season roll of their own, having won three of the last four games and most notably knocking off #1-ranked Florida Saturday in Nashville. That win, along with Kentucky's loss at Alabama, means Vanderbilt (18-8, 8-4) is a game-up on the Wildcats for second place in the East and the vital first-round SEC Tournament bye. "Vanderbilt's having a great year," Bulldog Coach Rick Stansbury said Monday morning. "Kevin (Stallings) has done a great job with that team. They're coming off one of the biggest wins in school history, defeating Florida. We're certainly going to have our hands full."
Then again, Mississippi State is suddenly a handful as well. They have recovered fully after ending January on a three-game skid that had the Dogs 2-5 SEC and dangerously close to falling out of any Division contention, much less post-season consideration. Since then Stansbury's squad has pulled off a remarkable February rally, winning four of five contests. Aided in no small part by the struggles of West peers, this has pushed State to the forefront alongside the two nearest-neighbors and sharpest traditional rivals.
In fact, the coach now can look back at some bitter losses—most of all the one-point setback at Alabama two weeks ago—and ponder just where Mississippi State could be at this intense juncture of the 2007 schedule. "If we'd done it the easy way, this thing would be over," Stansbury said. "But we've done it the hard way, and that's better. It's made them better doing it the way they've had to do it."
All the more so because the Bulldogs have suddenly proven capable of succeeding away from home. They responded to the last-shot defeat at Tuscaloosa by outscoring Auburn on the road, and a Saturday later simply toughed their way to the LSU win. State did let a double-digit lead get away in both halves, and with two minutes left in Baton Rouge the Bengals had a shot for the lead. But Stansbury's team came through in the crunch at each end, getting defensive stops and manufacturing the winning points.
"On the road you're not always going to play pretty," Stansbury said. "But you have to win ugly on the road and we found a way to win ugly." Certainly those two Ws look awfully pretty on the record this week, all the more so because both were Division victories along with the home romp over Arkansas in-between.
This puts the Bulldogs 6-2 in West games, which matters. Their counterpart-contenders are also 6-6 SEC but the Rebels are 5-3 against the West and Alabama only 3-4. So if everybody ends the regular schedules tied, and the three-way combination also comes out with splits all around, State is in good shape to earn that tie-breaker advantage. MSU has already split with the Rebels and has a return date with the Tide in what will be the last game of the last day of this year's SEC schedule, on Sunday March 4.
Stansbury would prefer his players not be looking so far ahead. Wednesday is the Bulldog-business of the moment and a win over visiting Vanderbilt would do wonders for State's position in both SEC and NCAA terms. The team's schedule-strength was unofficially in the mid-20s but an equally unofficial power-rating was in the 70s, not an encouraging stat in the post-season projections. The fundamental issue is that Mississippi State has not scored a ‘quality' win yet this season, over a ranked opponent or overall league-leader. The closest to that status so far would be the home win over the Rebels. Vanderbilt might not be at the very top but these ‘Dores are on a NCAA track and a Wednesday win would strengthen State's case.
Easy to suggest, difficult to do Stansbury said. "They're an experienced basketball team, and they've got a lot of talent. They change the style. Every one of they're guys can shoot, so they spread the floor out, which can be very difficult to defend."
State has found facing Eastern teams difficult enough, losing all four previous matchups. Yet the combined margin of those defeats is just 18 points and eight of that came in the SEC opener at Tennessee. The Dogs have fallen to Kentucky by four, and both Florida and South Carolina by three.
But that was a State squad still figuring itself out and struggling to make late-game plays. Things are different and better these days for the Dogs, who shook off their most bitter setback of the season to win three-straight. And while they did dominate Arkansas, the 91-83 win at Auburn was a closer affair than the final score with State taking charge in the last half. LSU came down to the late minutes and this time MSU made the decisive plays.
Particularly Charles Rhodes, who had the key basket at 97 seconds to stem the Tigers' last, best rally. It capped a 15-point outing by the junior, who has asserted himself during the three-game winning streak with 25 points at Auburn and 19 more against Arkansas. By no coincidence the current run has come with Stansbury starting the ‘small' lineup of four guard-type players and Rhodes in the post.
State can get away with this thanks to the all-around efforts of soph Jamont Gordon. Nominally the MSU point guard, the Nashville native does distribute the ball but more often scores or rebounds it himself. He has scored double-digits in the last ten games and over the past four has averaged a free throw under 20.0 even. More impressively Gordon has 23 rebounds in the same stretch to go with 17 assists.
Also, this is not the same quartet of backcourt Bulldogs that was starting in December and early January. Beginning with the first LSU meeting, senior swingman Dietric Slater has been on the tipoff team. State has won four of those five games and as noted fallen a single point short in the other. Stansbury likes the balance Slater gives as something of a bookend to Gordon; a physical guard who can rebound and defend bigger players and still contribute offensively. Slater did have a five-game run of scoring double-digits ended Saturday with six points at LSU, but he was the game's top rebounder with ten boards. Seven were offensive caroms caught and the most important a slap-out snared by Gordon that resulted in a Tiger foul and the clinching free throws.
This is ‘East week' for the Bulldogs as they travel to Georgia (16-9, 7-5 SEC and at Ole Miss Wednesday) this coming Saturday. After that State goes to Arkansas before ending the schedule against Alabama, a week that will surely settle what West teams get the first-day byes in Atlanta.