Dogs Put League-Lead On Line At Arkansas

It's quite a milestone coming up for Rick Stansbury. The next Mississippi State win will be the 200th for their coach, an obvious angle for this week's schedule. Just don't expect the boss Dog to make it a point. "I'm not looking at 200, I'm looking at Arkansas," said Stansbury. "And 6-0 is a whole lot more important to me than 200."

Certainly 6-0 would matter more in the current 2008 context as Mississippi State tries to stay a step ahead of the entire conference. The Bulldogs, now 14-5 and on a nine-game winning streak, boast the last unblemished SEC record at 5-0 and thus top both the league and Western Division standings. It's an enviable position…

…and one that the Dogs must battle to maintain over the six whole weeks of SEC-winter still in store. Beginning again this Wednesday as State heads to Fayetteville for a West shootout with Arkansas, also 14-5 but 3-2 SEC. The second-place Razorbacks can chop their Division deficit in half by defending the home court. It's a venue Stansbury knows all too well from nine previous visits, only two of which (2004 and '05) ended well for State.

"Arkansas is awful good there in Bud Walton. And what makes them good is they have a good team. Put a good team in that environment and it makes them awful difficult to beat."

Veteran Bulldogs know how difficult these Razorbacks are to beat regardless of venue, as Arkansas knocked State out of last March's SEC Tournament. The Razorbacks' 81-72 semifinals win essentially put Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament and left State, the West co-champions, to settle for the NIT. And all but one Hog, who played a single minute in that SECT game, are still around for this year's rematches.

"They've got all the makings of what you need in a basketball team," Stansbury said. "And John (Pelphrey) has done a good job coming in and putting his touch on this team."

The first-year coach has been careful about what aspects of the Razorback rotation he's put an imprint on. The starting lineup has altered some since early in the season but the same eight-man group has gotten the major minutes. The literal strength of this squad is the big Pigs. "They've got great inside players in (Darian) Townes, (Steven) Hill, (Charles) Thomas, and (Michael) Washington. No one in the league has four guys like that. And, experience." Because the first three of that quartet are seniors, as is swingman Sonny Weems who can play as productively inside as out. He, too, is an upperclassman.

"Four are seniors and you don't see that nowadays," Stansbury said of the front line. On the perimeter, "Weems has really played well of late, you have to control him and that's easier said than done." And while Patrick Beverly does his offensive damage from long range, the 6-1 guard has been an amazing rebounder in January SEC action.

The most familiar name to Mississippi State of course is guard Gary Ervin, the senior who spent his first two college seasons as a Bulldog. A winner, too, playing backup point guard on the 2004 SEC Championship team and starting for the 2005 squad that made State's last NCAA tournament appearance. After a redshirt year, Ervin didn't start and was scoreless in his return trip to Starkville last February. But he came back with a 20-point, seven-assist outing in the rematch in Fayetteville; with 15 more points against State in the SEC Tournament.

Stansbury downplays the inevitable topic of State focusing on the former Dog. Besides, only one current MSU player, senior Charles Rhodes, was on a team with Ervin. "We never did look at it that way," the coach said, "we looked at it as we're playing Arkansas. No question he's done a good job for them."

Unquestionably Mississippi State has done an outstanding job to-date in SEC season, winning all five matchups and often in dominating style. Defensively dominating style, that is; the Bulldogs are by far the league leader in points allowed (or not, rather), field goal shooting defense, even three-point defense. And State has blocked twice as many SEC shots as the next-nearest conference club, 52 to Alabama's 26.

The big Dog in blocking balls of course is soph center Jarvis Varnado, the SEC's top swatter with 97 through 19 games. His pace has slowed lately with four blocks the last two games; he had 27 in the previous three SEC contests. Yet Stansbury is just as pleased with the shots not taken or just changed by Varnado's presence and reputation.

Besides, "Arkansas has experienced that through the years having (7-0) Hill. You've got somebody around the hole who can erase some mistakes or make the guy coming in shoot that shot a little different. He does alter shots besides the ones he blocks." Varnado is also altering his own presence on the other end. He's productive on offense if not prolific at 7.4 points, because he makes 62% of the four to five shots he typically takes.

Varnado's offense developed out of both opportunity and necessity because he had to assume a bit more scoring-load when Rhodes was either sidelined or limited. That's clearly no longer the case after the senior pounded Ole Miss for 26 points Saturday. "We just need him to continue to do it every day," said Stansbury, adding that Rhodes can see the end of his SEC career coming up and he wants to make the most of the next six weeks.

"After missing that stretch (with an ankle injury) he's had to play himself back into it. I think he's about to get back in that groove, if he does it makes us so much more efficient offensively." Though the coach might wish Rhodes would limit himself in off-court commentary, such as his pre-game proclamations leading up to the Ole Miss showdown. To his credit Rhodes definitely delivered, scoring his most points yet against the rival Rebels.

"Naturally being a senior you should understand what to say and what not to say," Stansbury mused. "I hope he's a senior. I don't sit him down and tell him what to say. He understands as a player you don't give opposing teams anything to fire them up more than they already are."

The Razorbacks don't lack for motivation, with a chance to gain January ground on the Division and league-leader and improve their own post-season standing. And after losing a pair of games at Walton to the Dogs, the Hogs have taken the last two home sets. These Hogs, that is, which makes this a most challenging matchup for a Bulldog roster with no one who's started a success in Fayetteville.

"It's never easy when you have to go there," Stansbury said. "We'll have our work cut out for us Wednesday night." But if the Bulldogs can get that job done, the coach will come home with win #200…and that 6-0 mark which means more to Stansbury. "The only thing that matters is the next game."

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