Dogs, 'Noles Meet For NIT Region Title

Casual viewing during the regular season had already given Rick Stansbury the notion. Now that the Mississippi State coach has studied the subject seriously he's certain. "We're even more convinced after watching them on film, we've got to play one of the most talented teams in Florida State."

This duel of State teams comes in the third round of the 2007 National Invitation Tournament, with the Bulldogs (20-13) hosting the Seminoles (22-12) Tuesday evening. Gametime in Humphrey Coliseum is 6:00 with national telecast on ESPN as the top two seeds in the NIT's North region play for the privilege of advancing to the NIT semifinals in New York City next week.

And, as Stansbury sees it, for just the chance to keep competing here in March. "It's obvious Madison Square Garden is a special place and the media exposure you get. But it's just the opportunity to play this time of year, and if you're fortunate enough to get there you're playing for a championship."

But before buying any tickets to New York the Bulldogs must get by a Florida State team entirely capable of winning the whole even themselves. The Seminoles were one of those infamous ‘bubble' teams left in the NCAA Tournament lurch and still aren't happy about it. Toledo (77-61) and Michigan (87-66) have paid the price in Tallahassee. Now the ‘Noles have to go on the road to the region's top-seed but Stansbury is not counting on the home court offsetting some advantages the guests possess.

"We've got our work cut out for us," he said. While there isn't a good direct comparison within the SEC lineup State played, Stansbury said Florida State does bring their in-state rival Florida to mind. In fact the Seminoles defeated the SEC Champions 70-66 in Tallahassee last semester. The Bulldogs lost to the Gators in The Hump 70-67 in January.

"They're a little different with (Florida's) two bigs," Stansbury said. "But their perimeter is as good and they have quality guys off the bench. There are nine guys who bring great depth to that team." Not just that but FSU's collective experience far exceeds what a younger Bulldog team owns.

"And they have a guy like (Al) Thornton capable of getting you 25 every night," Stansbury added. The 6-8 senior forward can do that and more, such as when he hung 45 points on Miami at the end of the regular season. "Before tournament play in his last three games he averaged 28 points," said Stansbury. Thornton is averaging 19.8 for the year and 7.2 rebounds, and leads the squad in blocks as well. But he is not merely a post player, as his 35 three-pointers and 50 steals prove.

"He shoots the three at almost 50% in ACC play, he puts it on the floor like a guard and posts like a center. He has no weaknesses in his game. Defend him with a big and he kills you outside, defend him little and he kills you inside. Pick your poison." Thornton was runner-up for ACC Player of the Year.

Thornton lines up beside 6-9 Uche Echefu, and 6-9 Ryan Reid brings more bulk off the bench. But the Seminoles backcourt is worthy of respect in its own right, and Stansbury knows one of these guards very well. He recalls when Toney Douglas was a freshman at Auburn and lighting up the SEC for 18 points per night, before transferring to Florida State. Now he's a sophomore.

"He sat out a year and you know he's better," Stansbury said. "He gives them a guy who can really score and shoot the ball. He can score a lot of ways and distribute the ball, he's a point guard you have to pay attention to." Guard Isaiah Swann is actually the team assist leader with 110 and has 59 treys of his own. In fact six Seminoles have 24 or more three-balls for the season, so like Bradley the whole lineup is free to fire from long range.

The difference is that FSU also has muscle to go with the gunners and defends well in all areas. "When they play at their best they're as good as anybody in the country."

Stansbury is also familiar with the Seminole coaching staff, particularly 2001-02 Mississippi State aide Stan Jones. He worked with the Bulldog squad that won the SEC Tournament championship and started a streak of four NCAA Tournament teams in Starkville. That was an exception to Jones' career as otherwise he has accompanied FSU head man Leonard Hamilton in stints at Miami, the NBA, and now in Tallahassee.

"He's done a good job for them," Stansbury said. "He's a good guy and good person. Leonard has done a terrific job everywhere he's been. They've been right on the verge (of NCAA play) the last two years, they haven't made the tournament yet but they've made great strides in their program and are right there."

And the Bulldogs are on the verge of reaching a national tournament semifinals. Not the tournament they would prefer, naturally. But after falling short of a NCAA bid State's players have used this other March opportunity to win a couple of games in impressive fashion, blowing out both Mississippi Valley State and Bradley.

"You want a bigger bite and just weren't able to get it," Stansbury said. "But our kids have responded in a very positive way, they've come out ready to play, particularly the last game. Even that first game our guys responded the way a coach would want them to respond. And no question against Bradley our kids were ready to play.

"But Florida State is a different animal, their talent is at another level. It's going to take the effort we played with and more to beat Florida State."

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