Slater has gotten his game under much more control the half-senior-season he has been playing. Still, "I told him again in the locker room that I hope all those little kids in the stands don't try to practice those shots," Stansbury said. "He's unique. And those shots he makes, you just let him go because you never know what he's going to do. But one thing we've done, he used to make about three spins in the lane. We got him back to 1-1/2 spins."
HOME SWEET HUMP PART III: Just over 9,000 turned out for the NIT North regional showdown, as well as the for-sure final home game of this Mississippi State season. The first two games drew 5,500 and 5,700 but with school back in session and students on campus the Bulldogs had many, many more classmates cheering them on. Despite having to pay $4 for ducats, too, per NIT policy. And while the 6:00 start time dictated by ESPN enough adult fans were able to get off work in time to make tipoff.
The folk in the seats were rewarded with as complete a performance as these Bulldogs gave all season. In fact State blew away all three guests at The Hump this NIT by an average 21-point margin. It was to be expected, C Charles Rhodes said. "When we found our all our games were at home we just had a big smile on our faces. Because we know we're hard to beat at home."
"Somebody gave me a stat, the last seven games we had a winning margin of 21 points here at the Hump," Stansbury said. "That's some pretty good quality basketball teams in here. We put the foot on some people."
Firmly enough that State ended this season with a seven-game home winning streak and overall 16-3 record at The Hump. The previous record for home wins, in any MSU gym, was 13. In a dozen of those wins the Dogs scored 80 or more points. They were ready to give an ‘assist' to their supporters, too.
"Our crowd helped us get where we are right now," G Barry Stewart said. "They helped a lot."
BIG CITY BOUND: For Slater the NIT semis really will be getting back to New York. He was a sophomore on the 2004-05 Bulldog squad that played in the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic tournament in November and won a couple of games in Birmingham to reach the event's ‘final four.' Slater came off the bench in the semis for six points in six minutes against Syracuse, a 71-58 loss; and for 12 minutes and three points in a win over Saint Mary's.
"I remember we beat Saint Mary's," Slater said. "Syracuse kind of manhandled us." Particularly Hakim Warrick with 21 points, who Slater recalls all too well. Otherwise of the trip he says "That was fun. We enjoyed ourselves a lot." And Slater says he won't bother dispensing old-Dog advice to the pups on this team heading to the Big Apple for their first time.
Rhodes was also a backup on that team as a freshman. He had four scoreless minutes in relief of Lawrence Roberts against Syracuse and didn't see the floor at all in the consolation win. So not much stands out from that trip to Rhodes three seasons later. "I didn't play as much, that's the only thing I remember!" he said.
"Now I'm coming to Madison Square Garden as a starter and as a big-time player. And I just can't wait."
TAKE A BOW: Tuesday night Rhodes was willing to wait before leaving the court. When he picked up his third foul, at 16:20 of the second half with State leading 50-36, most believed he would be heading to the bench for a spell. Instead he stayed on the floor, just as he did at 9:46 on his fourth personal. "The refs weren't going my way and I got in foul trouble," he said.
But when backup C Jarvis Varnado stood up on the bench Rhodes got the message somehow to his coach he wasn't ready to leave. "I told Coach to let me stay in, to try to give the team energy." And Rhodes did stay in the game, at least until 1:13 when he earned the fifth foul. By then the game had been settled of course, and Rhodes was not upset.
"It was funny, because I'm not used to fouling out. I looked up and I had five fouls." Rhodes even said he thought it was his first disqualification of the year, showing selective memory. He had fouled out in overtime of State's SEC Tournament win over Kentucky, as well as in the November home game with Winthrop. He could be excused such forgetfulness, however. And Rhodes made the most of officially leaving the floor.
"I just enjoyed it. Coach was probably going to take me out anyway!" Rhodes turned his disqualification into a curtain-call of sorts, waving to the crowd and hugging teammates all down the bench. "I saw that," said Slater, shaking his head. "He always wants to make a standing ovation or something. He's crazy."
STAY OR GO?: Crazy or not, what is in Rhodes' mind now regarding his future? That is the subject of spring discussion around State, whether or not the junior is seriously considering tossing his name into the NBA hat this summer. He turns 22 on June 25, draft month for the pro league.
Asked if he will be back for a senior season, and if his two-fingered signal to the home crowd signaled anything significant, Rhodes did not tip his hand either way. "You know, I really ain't thinking about it (his decision) right now. But that last wave, I just gave the fans something to appreciate."
G Jamont Gordon was somewhat more forthcoming when asked if he intends to return for a junior season with a veteran ball team. He said he will be back. "Oh, yes. And it's going to be a good thing for us. We're going to be ready to play and win another championship."
MAN ON MADDEN: Speaking of winners, as much as they enjoy team success those two all-SEC Bulldogs are intense competitors off the court. Well, the real court that is. On a virtual court Rhodes and Gordon fight fierce battles via videogames. Except their favorite game isn't basketball, it's football. "Madden 2007," said Rhodes, who claimed he is the usual winner thanks to wise choice of franchise.
"I play with the Colts, he plays with the Falcons," Rhodes said. "So he's losing already! But he's got Michael Vick, he's a man."
Gordon strongly disputes his teammate's claims of superiority saying they are closer to break-even on the gridiron. "He doesn't win all the time," Gordon said. But, the guard admitted, "He does win basketball." That's where Rhodes plays with various teams while Gordon is always a Laker. "I get about 50 with Kobe (Bryant)," he grinned.
HOT SHOT: For a while it appeared Florida State guard Isaiah Swann was going to hang a half-hundred on Mississippi State. Swann, usually a nine-point scorer, hit six-straight shots in the first half and finished with 31. "Swann was great for them," said Gordon. Fortunately the Seminole junior wasn't able to carry his club alone. "One guy ain't going never beat us!" Rhodes said.
Now what FSU would have done had Swann and all-America forward Al Thornton been on the court more minutes together can't be known. As Stansbury said, Thornton's presence would have taken shots away from the guard. And all things considered, the coach was willing to take the chance on somebody else getting hot if that was the price of getting Thornton on the bench early with two fast fouls. He played only four minutes in the first half and took one shot, making it.
There was no trick to drawing those two quick personals, Stansbury said. "We wanted to make Thornton guard, make him work defensively. We were very fortunate, we went at him and got some calls and got him out of the game."
TECHNICALLY SPEAKING: Stansbury nearly took himself out of the game midway of the second half. With State leading 63-49, FSU's Thornton lost the ball on his end of the floor. On the other end MSU G Ben Hansbrough lost the handle and Thornton chased it down in front of the MSU bench. Replays showed he stepped out of bounds and got the ball before clearly re-establishing position in the court, but no official was in position to make that call.
Thornton broke for the basket and, after G Barry Stewart slapped at him around the foul-line, dunked. As the foul was being called, Stansbury protested so strongly he drew a technical from the trailing official, even tossing a pen. The coach wasn't arguing the foul, which he didn't see; he was furious that Thornton had been clearly out-of-bounds. "I didn't see the three-point play or I would have been really uspet," Stansbury said. "I just wanted to make sure that those refs know that people are watching them."
But the Seminoles didn't maximize their opportunity. Thornton missed two of the three free throws awarded so it was just a three-point play instead of the potential five-point swing. And no real damage was done because Slater came back forty seconds later with a driving layup, foul, and free throw.
TOURNEY TIME TOPIC: It is an annual discussion this time of year for teams playing in the ‘other' tournament. Which is better: to earn an at-large NCAA bid and lose in the first round, or to win deep into the NIT and perhaps even take the entire event? While on selection Sunday almost everyone will take Choice A, it is always with the qualifier for that for teams dominated by underclassmen the NIT is a perfectly legitimate option and good way to get much more March experience than a one-and-done in the Big Dance.
Leading up to the SEC Tournament, Rhodes was adamant that he and by extension his team did not want to play in the NIT. How does the junior feel now that State is going to the NIT semifinals and blowing people away in this tournament? Has his opinion changed?
"Uhhhhhm, let me see…" Rhodes said, then grinned. "Yeah, yeah! Because I was two-and-done my first tournament, I got beat by Duke in my (2005 NCAA) tournament. It's way better than that because we're still playing! We're going to be like in the final eight teams playing, four in the NCAA and four in the NIT. So it's a big honor for our school."
The honor and satisfaction would be all the greater, he adds, if the Bulldogs can come home from New York with a championship trophy. "It would mean a lot to this program because I don't think we've ever won a national tournament. I just want to bring it back to Starkville."
RECORDS WATCH: With two blocked shots Tuesday, Rhodes now ranks sixth on the MSU career list with an even 100 in three seasons. His 63 blocks this season is tied with Kalpatrick Wells for the 6th-best year by a Bulldog. And his 56.47% career field goal rate ranks 9th all-time at State.
*Gordon now has 307 career assists and ranks 10th on the MSU list, knocking Timmy Bowers (301) out of the top-ten. With 178 assists this season he is having the 7th-best year ever for a Bulldog guard. He has the tenth-most free throws for a season (154) and attempts (218) at State. And Gordon just became only the tenth Bulldog to score 550 points in a season. He now has 964 career points.
*Varnado blocked one shot against FSU, giving him the freshman-year record with 66 swats. He had been tied for the rookie-year blocks record with Erick Dampier (65 in 1994). And 66 is the third-best year of any class ever by a Bulldog blocker.
*Mississippi State is now 6-5 in all NIT games since 1979, and 5-2 in home games.