That's the practical approach Mississippi State must take going into this final week of the regular schedule. The Bulldogs (16-11, 7-7 SEC) simply need to win more games to achieve any of their several season goals. First of which is staying on top of the SEC's Western Division, where State is currently deadlocked with 7-7 Ole Miss. Both hold the high ground over 6-8 Auburn and Alabama, but by only a game. Which means there are four West clubs this week with legitimate hopes of taking the Division title outright or via tie-breaks.
Or, at least of coming in second and also getting a first-round bye at next weeks SEC Tournament. Since only twice in modern SECT history has a team that played on the first day won the event, and the league's automatic NCAA Tournament berth, this is a worthy objective as well. And of course this time of the year the national tourney is already the dominating subject of basketball conversation.
Just not, Stansbury hopes, around the MSU locker room right now. "All we're going to concentrate on is the things we can control, try to win those next two games," the Bulldog coach said Monday morning. And after that? "Who knows?" Stansbury said. "Is that enough, I don't know. I learned a long time ago not to worry myself about that."
The Bulldogs have enough to be concerned with Wednesday night as they travel to Arkansas (16-12, 5-9 SEC) for a 7:00 contest. While the Razorbacks are two losses in back of the West leaders and fifth in the Division today, in this strange season there is still the chance they could scramble up into second if things fall out the right way.
For that matter there is an excellent chance of a three-way jam atop the West by Sunday afternoon, though since all four involved parties play at least one—and in the case of Ole Miss and Alabama, all—of the crown-contenders this should shake out…somehow. Which is another reason why Stansbury is stressing the one-at-a-time theme to his team, with no concern for scores elsewhere until the final horn sounds.
"We're down to the final week and everybody has two games left, one on the road and one at home. Things are taking shape here now, we all understand the importance of what we're trying to do." And as for the post-season, well, "We're not even talking about that."
Arkansas is the subject of the moment. State won round-one only two weeks ago, a 84-60 rout at Humphrey Coliseum, lighting up the Razorbacks from long-range with 11 treys and putting five Dogs in double-digits. They also held the visitors to 36% shooting. "The first time down here we shot as well as we can shoot it and it wasn't their best effort," Stansbury said.
The Hogs are capable of better, yet they haven't been playing their best lately, either. Consecutive losses at Auburn and to Tennessee at home have pushed Arkansas to the brink of post-season perdition and left the locals restless. Still Stansbury is not counting on a flat foe Wednesday.
"They've got a very good team. We've got them on the last home game of the year so there will be some added emotion. When they play well and shoot it well that's been the difference, when Sonny Weems and Patrick Beverley shoot it they're a difficult team to beat."
Mississippi State does have good info on other Razorbacks. Obviously the veteran Dogs know their former teammate, point guard Gary Ervin, quite well. The junior, who transferred from State after two seasons, did not start the Starkville game as a penalty for breaking team curfew at LSU, and was held scoreless in the 20 minutes he did play. The Bulldogs aren't expecting a similar performance this time from one of the SEC's assist leaders.
And MSU-Arkansas meetings are also notable for the twice-yearly reunion of two big men from the Jackson prep ranks. Both juniors, both Charles, both power forwards and both scoring double-digits. State's Rhodes and Arkansas' Thomas are getting together again. Stansbury says both were worthy recruits out of the metro area three years ago, but being college teammates was never an option.
"They weren't going to play together, and we couldn't recruit both together. So we made a decision to recruit Charles (Rhodes) just on upside. But Thomas has always played with that toughness, and he's gotten better because of that. He plays as tough as any power forward in this league."
When the Razorbacks are rolling Walton Arena is in another league, too. Stansbury teams have had success there, though, winning in both 2004 and '05 and playing well last February as well. These Bulldogs have shown they can succeed away from home with wins at Auburn and LSU, both of which suddenly look better given recent scores. But State came up much shorter Saturday in a 83-70 loss at Georgia, which was the perfect example of how Stansbury says the team must perform if they want to get out of Fayetteville still first in the West.
"If you can make shots, give your team some confidence, get the crowd out a little and shorten the game, then you have an opportunity. That's what we're going to try to do." Easier said than done, of course. But the Bulldogs know they can't afford to fall behind early or far this week, especially at UA's last home game. "We know we'll get their best shot Wednesday, on Senior Night. So we'll have to be ready to respond."
The coach's response to questions about Mississippi State's NCAA status are less objective. Even now, tied for first-West, the Bulldogs are barely getting any attention as even a ‘bubble' team for an at-large berth. That has as much to do with the team's record and lack of wins against quality opposition as it does the Division's chaotic condition. There is even speculation that the champion of this Division might miss out on the national tournament barring a SEC tourney run.
Even Stansbury admits to the possibility. "We've never had a situation where it's automatic. They're going to break down numbers, and winning the West doesn't necessarily get you in. It's obviously something they'll look at closely but I don't think winning the West is anything they'll give you extra points for." At the same time, the MSU coach is not belittling the Division nor the SEC as a whole. "I know this, there's probably 11, maybe 12 teams as good as any 64 in the country. Now, it's obvious all 12 aren't getting in. but I think there's 12 that are as good as anybody on any given night."
Which is another way of saying that Mississippi State's post-season fate will likely be settled next week in Atlanta, and the goal for this week is to position the Bulldogs as well as possible in the SEC Tourney bracket. I.E., win the West or at the very least finish second and get that bye.
"There's plenty of games left to play, two regular season and then the SEC Tournament," Stansbury said. "There's going to be a lot of teams going into their tournaments in the same batch, probably 25-30 just like us; even in their leagues, good leagues.
"We've just got to win and put ourselves in that position, then hope the committee looks at what we did. But to get all those things in consideration you've got to win games."