Bulldogs Tip Off SEC Season At LSU

All the pre-league formalities are finished. Now Mississippi State transitions to the conference phase of the basketball schedule, traveling to Baton Rouge for a Wednesday evening meeting with Louisiana State. Tip-off at the Maravich Assembly Center is 7:00 with no telecast scheduled. The Mississippi State radio network telecast begins with the 6:30 pre-game show.

"It's a new season," agreed Coach Rick Stansbury. A season-within-the-season that means everything to Mississippi State's hopes of playing in the post-season. And for LSU, too. The Bulldogs emerged from pre-SEC play 9-5 and on a four-game winning streak, while the Tigers are 7-7 after losing their last three dates. Not that Stansbury is counting on momentum mattering much in the ‘new' season.

"There's no easy games, home or on the road," the coach said Monday. "I know we're starting off with a very dangerous LSU team. I know they have some injuries, but I know John (Brady) will have them ready so we'll have our work cut out for us Wednesday night."

The first order of business for both ball clubs is just making out a lineup. The Tigers, already a team in a rebuilding mode this winter, have been hampered against a grueling schedule by injuries. That certainly contributed to LSU's first loss in three decades to Tulane last week, and a defeat at ranked Texas A&M over the weekend. Stansbury's response? "I learned a long time ago nobody feels sorry for you in this league when there's injuries," he said.

Besides, the Bulldog coach is counting on seeing a productive LSU lineup Wednesday with enough backups for at least a eight-man rotation. "They've played that way already with Texas A&M," he noted, "and most teams aren't going to play more than eight or nine guys anyway." Amongst this group is sufficient talent to defend the home court, too.

"(Forward) Dameon Mason is a senior, he's been through the wars. They have an exceptional player in (big forward) Anthony Randolph, he's probably the most talented freshman in this league and has the most ability to play at the next level. Just his ability to score, he leads them in blocked shots, he has a great skill level for a guy his size. And Terry Martin and Marcus Thornton are two perimeter guys who can really score."

A question mark for LSU is the status of big man Chris Johnson, who hurt his hand in the Tulane game. If the 6-11 junior can't participate it will likely have the Tigers playing a smaller lineup, which to Stansbury's mind is not necessarily an advantage for MSU. "When they shoot it they show signs of being as good as anybody."

Mississippi State knows all about playing small-ball these days. The team has been without big Dog Charles Rhodes for the last two games, after the junior frontcourt star sprained his left ankle in a practice incident prior to the Missouri game. Rhodes was averaging 15.6 points and 7.3 rebounds before the injury, and shooting 55%. Yet his absence has yet to truly show as State was able to beat the visiting (MU) Tigers 87-75 at home, then go to their home-away-from-home court in Jackson and whip Lafayette College 77-53.

Stansbury would rather have the all-conference frontcourt man available for LSU of course. But "At this point it's a no-go for sure," he said. "Nothing has changed, he still hasn't practiced." So the Bulldogs will stick with the small lineup that's worked for two games already, with four back-court type players and one skinny center in the middle. That middle-man, soph Jarvis Varnado, has stepped up to the challenge. Or perhaps ‘jumped up' is a better description as he has blocked ten shots in the last two outings combined, giving Varnado 66 swats already this year. He blocked 67 in all of his freshman season.

The 4.7 blocks average ranked third-best in the most recent NCAA statistics. "A lot of people can jump," Stansbury said. "But it's about having that special timing, that special ability to jump quickly. And not just once but twice." Varnado's special swatting skills have allowed State to get away with a smaller perimeter group on both ends of the court without giving up defense and rebounding. In fact Varnado is up to 8.0 rebounds a game, best on the team, and Saturday posted his first double-double by grabbing 12 boards to go with 16 points.

"Look at his stats and what he's been able to do," Stansbury said. "As he plays more he'll become a better scorer, lack of strength affects him some but he has the ability to score points."

Guard Jamont Gordon continues to lead State in pointing with 17.5 per game, and has 64 assists against 53 turnovers; a positive ratio that means positive things for the offense. Yet in the last few games the 6-4 junior has found his way to the front line more often, to help out with rebounding and defending nearer the basket. This has put the ball in the handling of true guards Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough more often. And redshirt rookie Phil Turner, who moved into the lineup when Rhodes sat down, seems to be getting up to college pace on offense. All three take some of the play-making responsibility off Gordon so he can work inside-and-out.

Bulldog depth is still a concern. Brian Johnson is getting almost all minutes as the backup big guy as frosh Elgin Bailey tries to get into some sort of rhythm. But after a slow start freshman guard Ravern Johnson is suddenly giving the backcourt a boost off the bench, with 26 points in the last three games.

The MSU-LSU series has been one of the SEC's more entertaining rivalries and Stansbury expects former Bulldog aide Brady to have all his available players dialed-in for this rematch. State won 56-50 in the last trip to the Maravich Center, completing a sweep of the 2007 series. And as odd as it may sound, the first game of SEC season is quite crucial for both teams. With five losses already, the most pre-SEC setbacks ever for a Stansbury squad, Mississippi State has virtually no margin to work with in NCAA Tournament terms. The Tigers are in even more precarious position, particularly given outside opinions on the strength of the SEC in general this year.

Stansbury thinks that case has been over-stated by analysts, though he agrees that Tennessee is the clear league front-runner with everyone else scrambling right behind. In the Western Division, the coach said unbeaten Ole Miss is playing exceptionally well and has a leg-up while Arkansas can still count on their experience and size over the long haul. And many SEC lineups have been bitten by injuries already. "But they'll get people back and our league will be right there at the end."

Mississippi State's home SEC opener is this Saturday, with a 1:00 game against Georgia in Humphrey Coliseum.

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