Bulldogs Prep For Kentucky Matchup

It was just halftime, the margin still eight points, and the leading team in front only after a fast intermission finish. But even then Rick Stansbury was already entirely certain who his Bulldogs should prepare to face first in this SEC Tournament. Asked for comments on either possible opponent, the Mississippi State coach would only talk Kentucky.

It was a correct right call as the Wildcats (21-10) took care of second-half business in a 79-67 victory over the Crimson Tide in the opening contest of this year's conference classic. Now the Bulldogs (17-12) get their turn against the big blue in Friday's second-round, with a 1:00et tipoff from the Georgia Dome. From Stansbury's comments it was clear he would have preferred to see Alabama, a 91-67 victim last Sunday, again, than a Kentucky club coming into its own in March.

"Kentucky is always one of the best defensive teams in the country," Stansbury said. "When they weren't scoring early in this game (against Alabama) they were able to keep defending. They're one of the better defending and rebounding teams in the country and when they shoot the basketball they're as good as anybody. And they made shots late in the first half."

Over 53% of their shots to be exact. This after the Wildcats averaged 49% accuracy over the 16-game SEC season and 74 points. A gimpy Alabama squad was not at its defensive best admittedly, but Kentucky showed a crispness on offense missing much of February and responsible for the Wildcats coming to Atlanta seeded #4 East. And, forced to play on opening day, something their fans are not used to.

The faithful present for the tournament's first game seemed satisfied with the outcome and effort as five Wildcats scored in double-digits, led by junior center Randolph Morris' 17-point, 11-rebound double-double. The team also made good on nine of 22 treys, again better than their SEC season as a whole. In fact this UK team was only sixth in made-treys, once unthinkable in Lexington. That improving perimeter prowess is something Stansbury has to account for now.

Besides, "They have great experience, they're basically a junior-senior team. They've been here, they've been in this thing. That's another thing they have in their mind-set." Which is why Stansbury is essentially treating this meeting as a ‘road' game for Mississippi State, on a not-so-neutral court.

"One thing that makes Kentucky different from anybody else is they'll have 20,000 people here. Today it's about half what it will be tomorrow, they've got the tradition (here). But we don't have to play against all that, we just have to play a very good Kentucky team."

When these Bulldogs have been on their game they have been very good, too. Sunday's romp over Alabama to clinch first-seeding from the Western Division is the most recent example. State has also played some good road games in the second half of SEC season with wins at Auburn and LSU. For that matter even in January when the Dogs lost games at Tennessee and Kentucky they played the hosts down to the wire.

So Stansbury is not concerned with how this team, most of which had never seen the Georgia Dome before, will handle the setting or even the crowd. He is very grateful to have the first-round bye and not just because the Bulldogs had to play Sunday. Senior guard Dietric Slater, one of a trio who has been to this floor before, is playing with an injured left hand, sore knee, and strained lower back. "We've got Dietric taped and glued together, but he'll be fine," Stansbury said.

"Everybody's fine, except we do have some colds. Jamont Gordon had a cold Sunday and it's still there and Jarvis Varnado has a bad sore throat. I think they're OK."

Gordon was OK at Lexington with a team-best 13 points and eight rebounds, until he had his waning-seconds shot to tie blocked by UK center Randolph Morris. But not much has shaken the soph this year as shown by his team-leading scoring, passing, and rebounding. Those numbers, as well as his pure presence all over the floor, earned Gordon first-team Coaches All-SEC; the first MSU underclassman so honored since Erick Dampier in 1994. Last year, in his first SEC Tourney appearances, Gordon had a 11-point, 11-rebond effort against South Carolina in Nashville, so tourney pressure ought not be an issue either.

What Stansbury wants to see is the complete Charles Rhodes show up for this rematch with Kentucky. Two months ago the junior did get a dozen rebounds and blocked a pair of shots; but he was held to 4-of-14 shooting and only eight points. It is no coincidence that the four SEC games Rhodes scored single-digits were all Bulldog losses. Signs here are encouraging as in his last two regular-season outings Rhodes compiled 40 points, asserted himself for the better on the boards, and swatted seven shots.

The Bulldogs will also look for the sort of offensive efficiency showed Sunday when the Dogs hit ten three-pointers against Alabama; not the 1-of-15 nightmare in a preceding loss at Arkansas. In his nine seasons Stansbury has taken pride in defense and rebounding, but this team is a different case. They typically must score a lot of points to succeed, other than in a 56-50 win at LSU. The 60 allowed at Kentucky was the fewest scored by State in any other league game this year.

One accompanying story line to this tournament is Mississippi State's standing in regard to the next one, or at least the one that matters. Though West champs, with only 17 wins all year and a 8-8 SEC mark—and seven of those successes were within the lightly-regarded Division—the Bulldogs are not a topic of serious NCAA discussion in most quarters. So, Stansbury won't discuss it with his squad either.

"We haven't thought much about that," he said. "Our goals were at the end of the year find a way to win that (West) championship, nothing else. And to do that you had to win games.

"It's obvious now, our kids know the two things we're playing for. Another championship, and we know we've got to win a couple of games to get to the tournament. But we're not feeling any pressure from that at all, we've just got to win basketball games."

Mississippi State had their Thursday workout at the Atlanta Hawks practice facility.

For more Bulldog team and player notes and numbers, read the M&F Bank Scouting Report posted today.

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