Dogs On Road With Perfect SEC Mark On Line

They're off to the fastest SEC-start of his tenure and should be favored going into the weekend's contest. But if any Bulldog dares start getting comfortable, much less over-confident, at this early stage of the season, Coach Rick Stansbury has a reminder for them. "It's never easy when you're playing in Tuscaloosa."

Which is where Mississippi State (12-5, 3-0) is headed Saturday, for a 2:00 contest with Western Division rival Alabama (11-7, 0-3). Raycom Sports will have the regional telecast, and a sizable portion of the region will be watching to see if the Bulldogs can stay on their so-far-unbeaten SEC track.

"We'll have our hands full," Stansbury said. "But our kids will be looking forward to the opportunity."

They'd better also be on their best ball-behavior, never mind Alabama's struggles and oh-fer league record. Or that State has the benefit of an extra week-day's rest, while the Crimson Tide had a weather-delayed return from Wednesday's 61-54 loss at Georgia. Stansbury wants his hot Dogs to keep their cool going into the rivalry meeting, and need only remind them of what happened last Feb. 7 in Tuscaloosa.

That was when State blew a five-point lead with 84 seconds left, giving up a pair of three-point baskets to Tide guard Mykal Riley and an incredible end-to-end drive for the winning layup by Ronald Steele for a 80-79 loss. The Bulldogs rebounded from the setback to win their next four games and go on to share the Western Division crown…but the loss in Tuscaloosa was a big reason why they didn't win the West outright, or earn a NCAA bid.

A lot of familiar faces will be on the Coleman Coliseum court again this Saturday for both sides. "They've got a veteran team," Stansbury said, "four of the six (regulars) are juniors and seniors. And they have the best post player in the league." That would be junior Richard Hendrix, averaging a double-double for the season to-date. "Plus they have great wings in Riley and Alonzo Gee."

What these Dogs don't have to fear is Steele stealing the day, as the SEC's ranking point guard is still coming back from knee surgery. Still the Tide lineup merits respect, and despite the records Alabama is both scoring and shooting (overall and three-point) better than the Bulldogs midway of the campaign.

Which sets up an obvious duel of Alabama offense against Dog defense. A very good defense which has set State's January tone. The three SEC victims have shot a combined 27.7% from the field, and averaged 51 points; both by far best in the conference lists. Put another statistical way, despite only ranking 10th in SEC scoring, Mississippi State is second-best in scoring margin.

Stansbury said the squad's defensive prowess is not really a surprise. "We've gotten better just because of a little bit of experience. Our guys have really bought into it, they've had some success and have a better understanding now.

"We're not perfect by no means, but it starts with our effort. And that's what we're hanging out hat on with this team."

Of course the most noted aspect of State's defense isn't just how shots are defended; it's how many opposing field-goal attempts never get a chance to even clang iron. They get swatted away en-route, most often by SEC- and NCAA-leading shot blocker Jarvis Varnado. The skinny soph has 93 rejections already and blocked 27 SEC shots; ten in each of the last two games. Which let Varnado, with ten points and 12 rebounds against Kentucky, record only the third triple-double in MSU records.

Stansbury naturally appreciates the rejection notices his skinny soph issues. What matters as much or more are his expanded contributions on offense, as well as playing better position defense. It's nothing secret, the coach said, just maturity of mind and body as Varnado has gone from 190 to 210 pounds.

"He's no Hercules now but he's gained some strength and stamina by just playing. Last year 10, 15 minutes was all his body could hold up. He played 36 minutes against Georgia, that speaks volumes."

Varnado has been careful to pick his offensive spots and made 71% of his shots in State's seven-game winning streak. Nor need he force things now that big forward Charles Rhodes is back in the lineup, his ankle close enough to 100% for the senior to get back to providing double-digit points in the paint. And while State was winning, it came without great shooting efficiency from leading scorer Jamont Gordon. The junior got his points, but was only2-of-16 at the three-point arc in a stretch.

Tuesday night he burned Kentucky for five treys in seven tries and scored a game-high 24 points. Stansbury said Gordon has always had the liberty, and the tendency, of dribbling downcourt and pulling the trigger from long range as the first offensive option. "He's capable of doing that, it just has to be more good than bad." For three weeks it was more of the latter, at least at the arc. But Tuesday evening Gordon let himself work more within the context of the play instead of just trying to make them all.

"The other night they all (his trey-tries) came after a pass in the offense or him coming off a screen, except when they were in that zone," Stansbury said. "For the most part he's a good shooter. It's those (shots) he comes and searches for that get him in trouble."

The Bulldogs do have two trouble-points of concern this week. Sophomore guard Ben Hansbrough's broken middle-finger on the left (non shooting) hand kept him out of the Kentucky win, and Stansbury is not optimistic about the weekend either. "I think he'll be a no-go. It's better but it's a long way from being able to play the physical pace Ben is comfortable with. I'd be very surprised if there's any change."

The coach has also been surprised by his team's lack of production at the foul line. They have won three SEC games despite 55% accuracy, or lack thereof, free-throwing. Varnado is just 6-of-16 at the stripe, for example. And the Bulldogs certainly get lots of late-game ‘practice' at the art, but with frustrating results. It hasn't cost State a SEC game yet, but Stansbury notes that in four of the five non-league losses missing free shots, particularly one-and-one opportunities, factored into the other team coming out on top late.

And, "I thought this would be one of the better shooting teams," Stansbury said. "And we haven't shot it well. I don't have the answers. Some times you can talk about it too much." Mississippi State also has to avoid any hints of talk that the Bulldogs are following the lead of their fans, who are already looking past this weekend to next week's West showdown with SEC upstart Ole Miss. There's business to take care of in Tuscaloosa, where State teams have only won twice this decade. And if any memories need jogging, there's always that tape of the last 84 seconds at Coleman Coliseum from last February to watch on the bus ride.

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