Stansbury Realistic About NIT Opportunity

Mississippi State had hoped to win their way into the national championship tournament with a strong showing in Atlanta. And in popular projections the Bulldogs have been able to do just that…only, it won't be the tournament they really wanted. As Coach Rick Stansbury left the Georgia Dome it was with an eye toward this week's National Invitation Tournament.

Stansbury and State fully expect to be picked for the event, which opens Tuesday/Wednesday on campuses around the country. Mississippi State's administration laid the groundwork weeks ago, submitting the necessary bid in case this proved the Dogs' only post-season option. And when his team fell 81-72 to Arkansas in the semifinals of the SEC tourney, Stansbury knew which way the tournament tides had turned.

"Let's be realistic, the winner of this game was going to get in (the NCAAs)," Stansbury said. "Arkansas deserves the chance, they stepped up today knowing it was us or them. The SEC deserves at least five (bids) for sure, and give Arkansas credit. They stepped up and won a game they had to win to get to the tournament."

And the Dogs didn't, meaning they must presumably settle for the ‘other' tournament now. "We kind of figure we'll be in the NIT," senior Dietric Slater said. "It's still a chance to play. That's good, I guess."

If Slater, one of two active Dogs who played in State's last NCAA appearance in 2005, sounded less than ecstatic it was because the team naturally focused all emotions on the ‘big dance.' Though they came to Atlanta 17-12 and figuring two wins were a bare minimum for NCAA consideration and even then selection was far from assured, the goal was there for the taking. No longer. And where once Stansbury would have lobbied openly for consideration the ninth-year coach is more objective these days.

"I've been on both sides of that fence. I know when to crawl up on that fence and bark, and when not to get on that fence. There'll be no barking by our team."

Stansbury is still proud of State for recovering from their 2-5 SEC start to break even for the schedule and share the Western Division championship, earning top-seeding in Atlanta on a tie-breaker. Then the Dogs handled pressure in their first SEC Tourney game through an overtime win over Kentucky, setting up the perceived all-or-nothing matchup with an Arkansas squad also on the infamous NCAA bubble.

"Give my team credit for that," Stansbury said. "Naturally you'd like to keep winning, but hey, we know where we're at. Are we as good as one of those 64 teams, yes. Yes we are. I understand numbers and how it works and it's not going to happen.

"What we have to do is re-group. The NIT has become a different tournament, it's a 32-team field and become a true championship. Ain't no byes no more, or anybody who's got the most money. They're going to seed and take the 32 best teams now. It's become a much more prestigious tournament to play in and go win."

From a coach's practical perspective the chance to play more games, especially with a team listing only two seniors and one junior, might have more practical benefits than a short trip to the big dance might. The players themselves find it harder to see things that way with the glamour of the NCAA event. Junior center Charles Rhodes admitted to being too down at the moment to think positively of the NIT. "We're still supposed to be playing (in the SECT)," he said.

"We've just got to wash it off and we've got to be ready to play. I want to keep playing. I don't want my season to end like this." So could the NIT be a new start for State? "It has to be," said Rhodes, "because we just got the crap beat out of us."

GOTTA BE THE SHOES: As the Bulldogs ran through the final round of pre-game preparations Stansbury, per his normal habit, came to the bench. As soon as the coach stepped on court everybody could see something different: with his dark suit Stansbury was wearing white sneakers.

By halftime most media had learned the coach was not making a fashion statement, he was taking care of a sore right foot injured when he stomped on the court during an unspecified February game. "I've got a bruised heel," he explained afterwards. "It happened two weeks ago, it's been getting worse and worse."

"But these shoes were much more comfortable, particularly trying to get the officials' attention." That in fact is how Stansbury, a noted stomper of hardwood across the conference, hurt the right heel in the first place and then aggravated it Friday responding to a chaotic situation in the Kentucky game. That now-famous incident, negating a UK free throw in regulation and giving State a shot—made by Jamont Gordon—to send play into overtime left the MSU coach with a limp.

But, he added, "It's the reason why we're playing today!"

M*A*S*H UNIT: Stansbury wasn't the only gimpy Bulldog in the Dome this weekend. Dietric Slater has been walking-wounded for weeks. He came to this game with a reinforced wrap on the left hand to protect two damaged fingers, and with a sore right shoulder from a Friday fall. That went with his bad lower-back from January and a bum right knee.

When reporters arrived at the MSU locker room Slater had to remove headsets he'd donned to tune out the frustration of the loss. "Soothing music," he said. Soothing what, the physical or emotional pain of losing his last SEC tourney game? "I guess the emotional."

MISSISSIPPI'S DAY IN THE DOME: Though both Mississippi State and Ole Miss were eliminated Saturday, the event made a piece of league history. Since the revival of the SEC Tournament in 1979, one of the annual themes among league media has been ‘Mississippi Day.' The popular (at least outside this state) impression is of both SEC teams from the Magnolia State providing easy first-round fodder for their more glamorous conference kin. And there was some merit to the myth at times during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

So for all their inherent rivalry, both State and Ole Miss had to take some measure of pride in their mutual accomplishments this March…even if it had to be hidden from fanatics on either side of the permanent divide. 2007 marked the first time that both the Bulldog and Rebels appeared in the semifinals in the same tournament. For that matter it never happened in the original league tourney (1933-52) either.

This was Mississippi State's seventh appearance in the modern meet's semifinal round, and the eighth for Ole Miss though their first since 2001. And while the Rebels got the first SEC Tourney title for the home state in 1981, Bulldog teams now own two trophies from 1996 and 2002.

Including both generations of the tourney, Ole Miss is 23-43 and State now 20-44. Yet the rivals have only met once in such a setting: in 2003 in New Orleans when State beat Ole Miss 73-64 on the second day.

DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER: Mississippi State is now 5-2 in SEC Tournament games since 1992 against teams from the Western Division, the first such loss since a 1999 defeat by…Arkansas, also in the semifinal round.

FAMILIAR FACES: With Saturday's outcome Arkansas took the three-game series with Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won 84-60 in Starkville on February 14, and the Razorbacks 67-58 in Fayetteville two weeks later.

The Hog naturally most thrilled with the wins was former Bulldog Gary Ervin, a backup point guard on the 2003-04 SEC Championship squad and starter for the 2004-05 team that reached the NCAA second round, State's last appearance in the national tourney. Ervin transferred a month after that game and ended up at the SEC West rival with a full release by Stansbury and State.

His first turn against the old school didn't go well as Ervin went scoreless in Starkville. But he had 20 points and seven assists on his new home court, and today scored 15 points in the SEC Tourney showdown. And there was none of the controversy as in the Fayetteville game when he and C Charles Rhodes had a run-in with a shove/punch from the shorter guy catching Rhodes in a sensitive area.

Nor were there any hard feelings on display this time. In fact a couple of Dogs, hometown friend Billy Begley and old SEC Champs teammate Slater, hugged. Slater didn't actually intend to do more than shake hands. "Then he caught my hand and said he still loves me. I said, alright." But Slater isn't one for a grudge as both wear championship rings. "We'll always share that."

Speaking of sharing, Rhodes had his sixth reunion with former Jackson prep compatriot Charles Thomas, a junior Razorback. While in previous games Rhodes has come out with bigger numbers, this was Thomas' turn to shine as he had 18 points and 18 rebounds. "He had a great game," said Rhodes, who had his worst offensive outing of the SEC season with eight points, all on free throws as he was 0-of-5 from the field.

"We played with each other, we're just like brothers basically. We played together in AAU and high school and the only reason we didn't go the same college was Al Jefferson." The prep star who signed with Arkansas out of high school but turned professional, that is. And as Stansbury said last month, State could only sign one big forward in 2004 and chose Rhodes, from Lanier High, over the comparable Thomas of Callaway.

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