"It's Obvious We've Got To Win Games"

Players, media, and fans will spend all week calculating and speculating on exactly what the NCAA's tournament committee requires of Mississippi State to merit a selection come Sunday. Not Rick Stansbury, or at least very much. "Neither of us know these things," the Bulldog coach says. "The one sure way is to win basketball games and put yourself in position where it's not a decision to be made."

That's the story he's sticking to as Mississippi State heads to this year's edition of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Bulldogs (17-12, 8-8 SEC) arrive in Atlanta as the #1 seed from the Western Division, with a first-round bye. They will play Friday (1:00et) against the survivor of Thursday's opening matchup of #4 East Kentucky and #5 West Alabama. If the Dogs win Friday they remain in the 1:00 timeslot all weekend.

And as Stansbury acknowledges, State will need to make at least a couple of appearances in the Georgia Dome if the NCAA is to be favorably impressed. The Bulldogs are a Division co-champion of a ‘power' conference, a top seed in the league tourney, and assured of a winning season. But that is not nearly enough, according to those who report such things, to have Mississippi State in the NCAA conversation. Even a victory, or two, this week might not turn the trick.

So, Stansbury figures the best approach is to tune-out most such talk. And certainly not to give his team a checklist of things to accomplish in Atlanta.

"I've learned you can't worry about those things. The way to get into the NCAAs is to keep winning games. You've got to get to the position when the committee looks at you close it's a clear vision. Because a lot of teams are going to be there."

Some of them SEC West comrades at that. Co-Division champion Ole Miss, Alabama, and third-seeded Arkansas all are in the same situation as State with little to distinguish one from the others. In fact, those three rivals all boast more victories than the Bulldogs and Alabama has already hit the 20-win benchmark. Toss in a 17-12 Georgia squad from the East and the picture is all the more muddled.

"As always, the SEC Tournament is new life for everybody," said Stansbury, who figures the top four squads from the Eastern side are reasonably assured of bids regardless of events in the Georgia Dome. After that? "I think it could be two more teams easily come in and separate themselves, get back on that ladder where you've got a shot," he said. "But it's obvious we've got to win some more games."

Just getting that first one is challenging enough. The Bulldogs lost a tough one to Kentucky back on January 13, 64-60 with a shot for the lead blocked in the final ten seconds. And the Wildcats' aura in Atlanta is well-known to all. As for Alabama, though State thrashed them yesterday 91-67 to clinch a share of the West, Stansbury knows the Tide was not near full-strength. If star guard Ron Steele is able to return to play (UA Coach Mark Gottfried was not optimistic in this morning's league teleconference) Alabama has the talent and experience to beat everyone in the Dome.

Minutes after Sunday's win Stansbury asked media who State could potentially play in the second round was. "And wished I hadn't asked the question. It doesn't take long to come back to realization how difficult it is.

"But we're excited to be going in as the number-one seed. We needed that extra day off, particularly after playing Sunday." And, after the exhilaration of a must-win success against a rival that let some younger Dogs who had yet to experience winning a championship of some sort celebrate. Even the two seniors with previous rings, G Dietric Slater and F Piotr Stelmach, enjoyed trimming the one net cut down as much as the kids.

Now all have an extra date to get that out of their systems and focus on the need to win. And win. And maybe even win again. In that case State would be succeeding on another Sunday, in the championship game. Stansbury has been here before with a 2002 Tournament title (in Atlanta) and a finals loss to Kentucky the next year in New Orleans. The Bulldogs coach might not know the exact history, which shows only twice as a team playing on the first day of the modern SEC Tournament been able to win four games and claim the crown.

But he knows it is a near-impossibility. "My first year (1999) we were 8-8 SEC but got the third seed. We won the first two games, and the third went to overtime. Down that stretch we were just worn-out, if we'd won and gone to the championship we'd have had no chance. The year (2002) going in as a one-seed and first day off, that helped us win the championship. That third game is about what you've got. Not just physically but mentally, to get up and play the competition game after game."

State should be physically ready for the weekend. Even the one gimpy Dog, Slater with his hand, lower back, and knee problems, put on a show Sunday with ten points in the win. And mentally the team is in good shape as well, having shaken off losses at Georgia and Arkansas to give a strong performance Alabama could not match. The win showed the Dogs at their best, and at the right time of the year.

It's been quite a comeback from a 2-5 SEC start. The Bulldogs won five of the next six and even in those late road-losses put up points, which has keyed the resurgence. "We've been scoring the ball," Stansbury said. "I think we ended the season in SEC play a half-a-point from leading in scoring.

"This is not the best defensive and rebounding team I've had, but we've gotten better at that the last two weeks. That's what let us go on the road and get some wins." Which is another point in State's late-season favor. The Dogs now know they can succeed on hostile floors. "And one good thing about Atlanta is it's a neutral site," Stansbury said. "So everybody has the same opportunity there."

But opportunity to play in the next tournament is harder to come by and only the few will be selected. The Bulldogs must maximize their extra day in preparation, stay focused on only the game of the day, and as the coach says just keep winning. More, hopefully, than does any of the other four conference clubs contending for the one or two NCAA openings.

"It's a crap-shoot," Stansbury said.

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