"As much as I've ever been around, (so many) things could change with just one game," Stansbury said Thursday, as State began preparing for this coming Sunday's home game with Alabama. Game-time in Humphrey Coliseum is 1:00 with regional telecast of the very last contest of this SEC regular season. And, by luck of the scheduling draw, the game which should decide the Western Division championship and seedings from this side in next week's conference tournament.
The Bulldogs go in 16-12 overall and 7-8 SEC after a painful 67-58 setback at Arkansas. The Crimson Tide (20-9, 7-8) is coming off a 69-58 win at Ole Miss.
And these aren't the only West squads at 7-8, as both Ole Miss and Auburn are also a game under break-even going into their respective finales—against each other on Saturday in Oxford. The schedule-maker could not have designed a more fitting finish to this Division season…or one with more potential for chaos. Thursday the SEC Office issued two releases explaining all the tie-breakers for various deadlocks as well as listing who can still win what.
Stansbury isn't wasting much time reading these. "I haven't figured out down below us. We have the one scenario that controls us and I think we're probably the only one. That's as far as I've gone with it."
Far enough because the clearest and cleanest scenario would come with a Bulldog victory Sunday. Then no matter who wins at Oxford and is also 8-8, Mississippi State would own the tie-breaker of a superior Division record. West records are also why Alabama cannot win the Division regardless of Auburn-Ole Miss outcome. Thus the Crimson Tide is playing to secure a second-seeding and first-day bye at the SEC Tournament, though they could also tumble as far as fourth or even fifth if ties break the wrong ways.
Mississippi State's situation is easier to forecast. Win, and claim a third Western Division title in the past five seasons. Lose, and the Bulldogs will go to Atlanta as the third-West seed and have to play South Carolina next Thursday in the conference tourney. There are no other possible outcomes for MSU.
What matters, according to Stansbury, is "We're the one team that controls our destiny as far as seeding in the West."
It's a good position to be in at the tail-end of the most chaotic, confusing season since the conference split into Divisions. Several times along this winding way the Bulldogs seemed to have no shot at a day-off in Atlanta, much less coming out atop the West. And Stansbury will admit the present potential is as much due to stumbles by the competition as much as it has been State's own resilience. All that said, here they are with a clear-cut opportunity. And, one that comes on the home court.
Not that Stansbury sees the need to over-emphasize the situation to his players. While only two of them, seniors Dietric Slater and Piotr Stelmach, know the feeling of winning a championship, after a season at this level and in the league even the rookies are entirely aware.
"My approach is the same, in particular for this game," Stansbury said. "You don't have to be very smart to figure out what's at stake here. Those kids know and understand. We've talked enough in the past they und what's at stake. Nothing else has to be said, whoever you're playing."
By chance State is playing a familiar foe and, over the past decade, their tightest West rival. Alabama also was the one-point winner in a nailbiter played at Tuscaloosa three weeks ago when Tide guard Ronald Steele went end-to-end for a layup in the waning seconds. It was MSU's cruelest setback of the season but was also followed by a four-game win streak that has put the Dogs in contention for the Division.
Alabama has shown impressive resilience of their own lately, getting over losses at Tennessee and at home to Auburn to beat the Rebels and maintain their own title hopes. "We're playing a very good Alabama team, we'll have our hands full," Stansbury said, adding, "We have to get back up after last night's loss."
That won't be easy and the extra day before Sunday's finale could come in very helpful there. The Bulldogs dominated most of the first half and with four minutes left to intermission led by double-digits, having their way with a struggling Arkansas squad. By halftime everything had changed as the Dogs got carried away with their own success, rushing things on offense and giving up goals at the other end.
The Razorbacks rallied to make it a game by the break and then gradually took control in the final quarter. They handed State a second-straight road loss, after the Dogs played poorly previously at Georgia. Despite all this Stansbury's team still can come out on top of the West, and the seniors leave Humphrey Coliseum as winners. But Stansbury knows better than to assume success in any State-Bama match regardless of court.
"It's been a very competitive series," he said. "We've both won some championships. A good memory is three years ago when we came back from 18 points down and won in overtime there for the SEC Championship. And Mark (Tide coach Gottfried) had his wins over here at The Hump, two years ago on (State's Senior Night they had a big win. So both have had their moments."
It hasn't hurt the rivalry's reputation that these coaches, who took over their respective programs the same season, are still regarded as playing for stakes both professional and personal in every rematch. Stansbury downplays that suggestion today. "As you get older those earlier tings aren't as important. Naturally it's a rivalry in itself, but we've both got mutual respect for each other." The MSU coach now gives more credence to the simpler aspect of a neighboring-state feud.
So he is not emphasizing the competitor more than the contest. Nor is Stansbury further stressing what the Bulldogs can win this weekend. "If we have to remind them of anything we'll be in trouble. There's enough at stake no matter who you're playing. We're playing for something Sunday afternoon and that's enough."
Besides, both sides have more to play for than SEC status. Neither team is in particularly strong position in NCAA bid terms at the moment, though the schedule strength and ‘quality' wins do favor an Alabama side that has already hit the 20-win mark. With those factors and a tie for West-one the Tide would go to Atlanta in an encouraging post-season position. Mississippi State is much more problematic and almost certainly has to win the West first and then show up strong in the Georgia Dome just to get serious NCAA consideration.
Stansbury will discuss these speculations with media, but not a lot right now. And not with his team at all. Nor should he need to any more. "Our kids understand what's at stake," he said. "We'll be ready Sunday afternoon."