As senior Charles Rhodes, ranking MSU veteran of the rivalry, said the build-up is already obvious around campus. It's a big event any season notes Rhodes, "But this year it's just crazy, I'm getting so many phone calls."
The voice Rhodes & Co. had best be listening to belongs to Coach Rick Stansbury, who wants to keep something like routine in a different week. In fact he'd prefer not to interrupt the season at all, especially not with State on a eight-game win streak.
"Naturally when you're in a rhythm I'd as soon keep playing, but you have no choice. We'll use this week as best we can and hopefully get a couple of guys a chance to heal up." So practices are being shortened a bit and Wednesday won't be used to scrimmage in place of playing a real game. Though, Stansbury said, Thursday will see more game-prep work than usual as the Dogs won't be coming off a game nor road trip.
"I think it will give us some time to work on some things," Stewart said. "And to rest up some injuries." Most obviously, the broken left hand of fellow guard Ben Hansbrough, and the iffy left ankle Rhodes has been playing on lately. Hansbrough missed the Kentucky win but participated in beating Alabama over the weekend, hitting three treys in the process while wearing a protective glove on the non-shooting paw.
"I can feel it every once in a while, at the end of games when we know we're going to win," Hansbrough said. "But in the heat of battle, not at all."
Rhodes can't ignore his pain quite as easily. "It's still bothering me, the swelling is still on it. I just have to play through it like always." But the senior is finding that frustrating. "It's just limiting me to like a garbage player or role player, I can't do the things I used to do. So now I do whatever I can to help the team."
This week is helping Rhodes some, even if his hopes of being allowed to "coast through practice!" as he quipped are daily dashed. More seriously, "If it's going to keep like this for a long time we've got to make some decisions right after the season, or during the season," Rhodes said ominously. "As you can tell I've been twisting it just a little bit and it's been aggravating me. If I keep doing that I'm going to have to make some decisions for myself during the season." Which could even mean sitting late in the season, judging by Rhodes' comments.
For his part Stansbury said there are decisions the staff has to make, or plan for. "Getting Charles back just allows us to play big again. We went through a four-week stretch there basically playing small, which offensively changed everything we were doing. With Charles back now you can go back to playing big. It benefits having some time practicing that."
But it's also been beneficial having played, and won, with Rhodes sidelined for several games, developing alternate lineups and rotations along the way. Because as the coach said, "Every day that goes by is his last day," meaning that a single false-step or bad landing can put the all-conference forward back on the bench. Though, Stansbury adds, he isn't entirely sure the ankle is always that big a problem.
"I tell Charles I see you going one way (on defense) like you're struggling, we steal it and you're a rocket going that way! But he has got some swelling in there. What limits him will be his play and his productivity. If the effort level is not where it needs to be because of the ankle it will be limited. Or if it's not caused by the ankle it will be limited."
Stansbury can talk in such terms with the progress made by other Bulldogs. The small lineup of four guards has worked well, with freshman Phil Turner responding to starting status with sound all-around play. Thus when Rhodes came back and Hansbrough went down, State didn't miss a step with Turner staying in the tip-off team.
"It's given him some confidence, and we have some confidence in him," Stansbury said. "When you lose a perimeter player you're still able to play with a Phil, and that's huge." By the same token there is more depth now at other spots. Where for two months Brian Johnson was the only backup at center and big forward getting many minutes, now rookie Elgin Bailey is able to do more than round out a lineup in reserve. He is defending and rebounding as needed off the bench. Ditto in the backcourt with Riley Benock and Ravern Johnson.
"We've developed some more minutes with Ray and Riley, whatever minutes they've given us have been productive minutes," Stansbury said. "Early in the year they weren't adding-to, most time they were taking-away. Now for the most part they're adding-to some and that's what we need from our bench. We need the same thing from Elgin and Brian.
"I could see those guys continue to get some minutes and continue to develop. Because they bring something different to the team. Elgin brings some toughness in the post, Ravern is a guy who can contest a shot with his length. Riley gives you some headiness and a guy who can make a shot. We don't need them to lead us in rebounds, scoring, minutes, we just need them to continue to add-to as they come in the game. And we feel good about them and they feel good about themselves right now doing that."
Three months into the campaign the rotations seem pretty well settled. That means MSU's other freshman, forward Kodi Augustus, is essentially in reserve duty. Stansbury said the talented prep schooler has offensive skills to offer, but "He just hasn't been able to grasp how hard you have to work every day. And once you get into the season practice is different, basically you dig yourself into a hole going into middle of January it's hard to uncover yourself. That's where it. And to Kodi's credit he's remained positive and been good about it."
The most positive Bulldog development over this winter has been from a team unable to complete games to one that has successfully completed a sparkling series of victories, including four SEC wins. There are some technical reasons, but mostly it's been the intangibles of just learning how to do the tough things to finish. Just finish.
"We pulled together as a team because we just got tired of losing close games that we know we should have won," Rhodes said. "It's crunch time and we've got to come out with a win." Tense wins, usually, which could be eased if the Bulldogs can improve some aspects of offense. The defense and rebounding have been reliable enough that Stewart talks of taking advantage and getting the transition game going more often. And Stansbury is still trying to figure why this squad has such trouble scoring unguarded points. That is, making free throws.
"There's no magic dust or pill I can give them. I still say we've got some guys who can make free throws, we just haven't made them. We just haven't gone up and made free throws for whatever reason." Yet that hasn't bitten the Bulldogs in conference competition…not yet.
"I've said all along we've been capable of being a very good SEC team," Hansbrough said. But, he added, "There's still a lot of games left so we can't get too cocky right now, that will hurt us. We've still got things to prove."
Starting Saturday when State takes on a real Division contender. And, a rival, which spices the matchup all the more. Especially to Rhodes who belongs to a minority in this game: he hails from Mississippi. Only three scholarship Bulldogs have a home address in this state; and only a single Rebel is a Mississippi native.
Of course Rhodes has always made much of the Dog-Reb rivalry. Last year he had 17 points and eight rebounds in a home win, 24 points and seven boards in a loss at Oxford. In the past he was motivated by playing familiar faces from the old Jackson high school circles; now just the title on the other jerseys are sufficient motivation. "Ole Miss is like one of those games where C-Rhodes comes out of the bag," he grinned, the words and expression alike probably not what his coach would care for. Regardless, "It's going to be my game come Saturday."
And whatever their home-state, the whole Bulldog roster understands the weekend's opportunity to score a win that will A) keep them perfect atop the SEC West, B) boost their low RPI, C) likely push MSU into the rankings after several years' absence. Oh, and D) keep the home folk happy. Hansbrough wasn't surprised to hear of the steady stream of students filing to-and-from the Bryan Building picking up their tickets days in advance…which long-timers attest is the best sign of how big the event is shaping up to be.
"But you can feel it on campus," Hansbrough said. And the Missouri native doesn't mind having to wait a few more days for the big game. In fact, he said, "It's good because I like to prepare myself, I'll be in the gym after practice just shooting and thinking what I can do."