"But we're happy to still be playing. Any time you're still playing this time of year it's good, especially for a young team."
Even a brief viewing of Mississippi Valley tape shows this is an area where the visiting team has an advantage. A great gulf may separate the SEC and the SWAC in most minds, but Stansbury recognizes good ballplayers and ball teams when he sees them on the screen. The Devils fit that bill, he said.
"They're very talented and experienced. Five of their top eight guys are seniors and three are juniors. James Green does a very good job coaching them and they'll be well-prepared." Green also has his own experience with this setting; in 2001 he was Southern Mississippi's head coach when the Eagles were sent to Starkville for a first-round NIT game, won by State. Now Green comes with a smaller school from another league, but Stansbury isn't under-rating the talent on Valley's lineup.
"They're very athletic, they like to get up and down the floor. They've got good size with a seven-footer and a 6-8, 250-pound guy inside. But they're also quick on the perimeter and have a lot of depth."
And, the MSU coach notes, Valley will come to town with more than the usual motivations. "And we understand some of these guys probably didn't get recruited by us, some got looked at by us. And I'm sure they'd like to come here." And win, Stansbury meant, which the Delta Devils are capable of doing at the expense of their bigger in-state school. "They wouldn't be playing f they weren't a quality team."
Mississippi State had hoped to prove its quality to the NCAA Tournament selectors last week, and an overtime thriller at the SEC tourney with Kentucky put the Bulldogs squarely on that proverbial bubble. But a semifinal loss to Arkansas cost State their opportunity as the Razorbacks got the fifth and final NCAA berth allotted the conference.
Now Stansbury has to rouse his deflated Dogs to play again, against a foe few have heard much of and in the sluggish campus atmosphere of spring break. All this team has to inspire it is, itself. Which might in fact be the best test of the squad's makeup. And Stansbury believes as soon as everybody assembles in The Hump for today's practice a lot of things should fall into place.
"Any time you play this time of year and have practice days and the opportunity to play for a championship no question it helps your team."
At the same time Stansbury clarifies part of that outlook. He doesn't give post-season drills the same sort of regard as, say, football teams invest in bowl game preparation. This is an entirely different situation. "I don't know if the practice time is as important this time of year. You get worn down.
"But the opportunity to experience competition, still be playing on a big stage and for a championship, those are the things that inspire your team this time of year."
This is Stansbury's third time to prepare for NIT participation. The first, in 1999, he had a veteran team too downcast after NCAA rejection to rally and lost at Colorado State. That club also had just one day to prepare and spent most of it traveling, contributing to the opening-round defeat. Things were much better in 2001, partly from getting to play first at home and partly from facing an in-state squad with a few player connections. That Bulldog team took advantage of the opportunity to whip the Eagles, then rode the momentum to Pittsburgh for a superb performance and upset victory.
And in the third round, back at home against Tulsa, the Dogs went right down to the wire and lost a trip to New York literally at the last second. No players remain from that team but the memories are fresh enough of those games and what it meant to the program in ensuing seasons.
Stansbury does caution against making a complete comparison between 2001 and '07. "This team is different. That team had a little more experienced, it was basically sophomores and juniors. This team is even younger. I remember four, five, six years ago our team wasn't at the point this one is." Those '01 Dogs got into the NIT with a 16-12 record and 7-9 SEC mark, which looks very similar to this one's 18-13, 8-8 mark. But to the coach the differences are greater.
"We didn't have a 8-8 record, win the Division, or feel right there on the verge of the NCAAs. That team was under .500 (SEC) and just to get the opportunity to play in the NIT was exciting for us. And we lost on that last-second shot." But what those ten days of NIT play meant for the future was obvious, as the team matured into 2002 SEC Tournament champs and began a four-year run of NCAA squads that included the '04 conference championship.
"No question there were a lot of things we took from that experience that spring-boarded us for the next year," Stansbury agreed. And if the Bulldogs handle things properly, they could almost see this week as the start of their 2007-08 schedule. "We have an opportunity to play basically five more games," Stansbury said. "That's a lot of games."
The NIT seems to expect the Bulldogs to play several games as Mississippi State is seeded #1 in their ‘North' regional. The geographic label means nothing since, as the top-seed, State will host the first, second, and third rounds as long as they stay in the tourney. If the Dogs take care of the Devils they entertain the winner of the Bradley-Providence game on Saturday, the time not determined as of this morning.
Of course to keep playing and hosting means taking the first step, Stansbury reminds. "We'll have to be ready Tuesday night."