Most recently, a 66-56 victory at Alabama that extended State's best SEC start since 1994. By the time the Bulldogs were back in Starkville they knew of Ole Miss' loss at Auburn, which meant MSU has a two-game edge on the rest of the West while the Rebels are in a three-way tie for second. In fact, Mississippi State technically is tops overall in the conference as East unbeaten Tennessee was out of league play over the weekend and is 3-0 for now.
Which is a very pretty place for the Bulldogs to be sitting on January 21, 2008. "But, we're only through four games," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "The next game is Ole Miss."
And if State wants the next game to also be their next win will require keeping the sort of focus that has allowed the Dogs to win their last eight outings. Presumably it helps that the success-streak has come the hard-nosed way, winning with strong defense, steady rebounding, and just enough scoring to get the job(s) done. Because little in the winning streak has been pretty, presumably the Bulldogs understand that nothing should be taken for granted.
Stansbury can also recite some numbers to get the team's attention. Such as, State's four SEC victims have a combined 3-11 league record; the Rebels have split against teams that are 8-7. Ole Miss has the better RPI as well, not to mention those rankings in recent weeks. So the coach has some facts to keep his hounds hungry for respect.
The Rebel resume is worthy of respect in and of itself. Ole Miss opened Coach Andy Kennedy's second season with a 15-win streak, including victories over South Alabama and Clemson teams that beat the Bulldogs. Graduation took over half the starting lineup from the 2007 West co-champs (shared with State of course), leading to low pre-season expectations that have been completely confounded.
"Andy has done a good job with that team," Stansbury said. "They have great inside play with (Dwayne) Curtis, and they've had great perimeter play. No question (guard Chris) Warren is the surprise of the league with what he's been able to come in and do." Both Reb league-losses were by respectable margins, as they went into the last minute at Tennessee tied and had three-point tries to catch up at Auburn catch too much iron.
And as dependant as the Dogs are on defense-and-rebounding, their coach can certainly envy a Rebel trait. "They really score the ball, that's why they're where they are," said Stansbury, who is 14-5 against Ole Miss and yet to lose on the home floor in this rivalry. "We know we have to play our best."
It's hard to imagine being better than the Bulldogs have the past two weeks, especially on defense where they've allowed a league-low 52.0 points on just 35.3% shooting—also best in the SEC. Home or road, State has put a hurt on opposing offenses. Naturally most of the attention went to MSU's startling shot-blocking with 41 swats in the first three conference conquests. Obviously that helped, but at Alabama the Bulldogs blocked only three balls and SEC/NCAA leader Jarvis Varnado wasn't credited with a single rejection. And State still won by playing position defense inside and out.
The point being that State doesn't have to count on having defensive lapses erased by Varnado or Charles Rhodes. It's a nice security blanket back under the basket, of course, yet the lineup has gotten a feel for how to play with each other and against opposing offenses. The Dog defense is making the plays it didn't and likely couldn't in November.
"I think the biggest thing was our inexperience to start the season," Stansbury said. "We had one senior and one junior, then we had three new guys in the starting lineup. That kind of got lost. And we played a tough schedule early, the Clemsons and Miamis, not having a bench. Those guys just weren't at a point they could come in and add-to. Now we've got more confidence in our bench, more confidence and experience in those guys on the court."
Make no mistake, State's staff is careful about how and when to use the backups…as well as who is sent in. The six Dogs who have combined for all starts, around a couple of injuries, have accounted for over 80% of minutes played. Still Stansbury has been able to pick-and-choose the situations and mix-and-match the substitutions without it biting the Bulldogs this month.
Against a physical Alabama frontcourt it was freshman center Elgin Bailey getting the minutes, 13 of them. Bailey did not play at all against Georgia and hadn't seen more than six minutes in other SEC outings. Yet the rookie was just right for that matchup. "He played with tremendous effort," Stansbury said. "The 13 minutes he gave us against (UA star Richard) Hendrix was huge with Jarvis in foul trouble and Charles with that ankle. He made some tough plays, got a big steal in the second half and a huge rebound with Hendrix on his back. And again, just playing with the toughness you have to play with to win on the road."
It showed how State is expanding the rotation, as junior Brian Johnson had been getting those backup post-minutes in previous minutes. In other games, even when Rhodes was sidelined by the ankle, Varnado avoided foul issues and showed his improved strength—and focus—to put in plenty of minutes. In those games backcourt-benchmen made a difference with Riley Benock and Raverne Johnson helping spell the starters as needed without costing the team plays or points.
"You need that off the bench, guys that give you toughness and energy," Stansbury said.
The free mid-week comes at a good time for Rhodes, to rest that still-tender left ankle; and guard Ben Hansbrough. The soph shooter had to miss the Kentucky win with a broken middle finger on the left hand and was doubtful for Alabama. Yet in the first half he jumped off the bench, into the action, and stuck a long three-pointer over the Crimson Tide zone. "I put him in and didn't know if he'd play one minute or ten minutes," Stansbury said. Hansbrough put in 25 minutes for nine points, all on treys, and while he did take a blow to the hand that left him sore Sunday the outlook is good for this weekend. He'll still have to wear a brace on the back of the hand to protect from further damage, but as Stansbury said "I told him if he shoots like that we'll put the glove on him every time!"
The Bulldogs will continue to practice the same days as usual for a in-semester week, with the standard day-off, but Stansbury will likely make at least one of the days a shorter stint. It might even be devoted to the team's one glaring weakness, to practicing free throws. The Bulldogs have gone 4-0 SEC despite dismal 51% ‘accuracy' at the charity stripe.
The Bulldog basketball call-in show will air as usual tonight at 6:00-7:00.
Also, Mississippi State was notified Monday that junior guard Jamont Gordon is the SEC's Player of the Week. Gordon scored 24 points in both wins of the week, against Kentucky and Alabama, along with 13 total rebounds and 10 total assists.