State Looks To Rebound Against Bama

This time last week they were alone atop both Division and league; today the Bulldogs are a stride behind in the overall standings and deadlocked with a West rival. Yet for all the worry-and-woe after consecutive setbacks Coach Rick Stansbury can set the SEC situation in bigger-season terms. "It's a long way to the finish line. The only game that matters now is Alabama."

And that's the only game Mississippi State (14-7, 5-2 SEC) will spend the next two days preparing for. The Bulldogs haven't the luxury of pondering how their conference lead was lost in consecutive setbacks at Arkansas and to Tennessee, not with the Crimson Tide (13-9, 2-5 SEC) coming to town Wednesday. State can't even think back to their 66-56 win at Tuscaloosa of just over two weeks ago because this rematch brings an improving Tide team to town.

For that matter Stansbury never wanted his team listening to fan fuss and media speculation that the Bulldogs were in position to break away from the SEC pack. Not that the Dogs will hear any such sounds this week anyway, but… "There ain't no running away," said Stansbury after Tenenssee held on for a 76-71 victory at Humphrey Coliseum.

"If we're ahead the 16th game, then you're running away. Last year it went to the last game to decide four or five spots. We understand that."

State players—fans,too—need to also understand that this isn't quite the same Crimson Tide team that the Bulldogs saw on January 19. Since losing at home to State, they have won two of three games and in the loss gave #7-Tennessee all the Vols could handle. And while those successes came against non-contenders in Auburn and LSU, still Alabama has clearly upgraded their efforts and efficiencies in key areas. The ball movement is vastly better than in early January, the assist/turnover ratio has improved, and more perimeter punch has shown with increased minutes for guard Brandon Hollinger to complement swingman Mykal Riley. They have 91 treys between them and the accuracy has been better in SEC season than the year as a whole.

Of course the centerpiece of this club remains the best post-player in the league, and despite his team's struggles an obvious contender for SEC player of the year. Center/forward Richard Hendrix is averaging a double-double for the season at 19.4 points and 10.5 rebounds, and his SEC stats are even higher.

"Besides being 6-9, 275 pounds, he has great hands and good feet," Stansbury said. "He's just a great low-post player and has a great feel for the game. And he's a great kid, too, a team player." At times Hendrix has had to be a one-man team, too, and single-handedly he got a lot of Dogs in foul troubles during that first meeting. Now, however, Hendrix has more help from a collection of perimeter athletes who have picked up their paces.

"Alabama is playing really well right now. And whenever we play it's always going to be a tough game." In fact Tide teams have a good record in Starkville and have won there as recently as 2004 and '05.

Nor will Mississippi State be at full-strength again for the rematch. Stansbury said today that guard Ben Hansbrough, who has missed the last three games with mononucleosis, won't be available for the mid-week game. "He'll get evaluated today, I'll know more this evening about his status. We know we'll be without him Wednesday night. Maybe we'll know now if he can start coming back." Hansbrough has not practiced in almost two weeks with the illness. In fact his last game was at Alabama, Hansbrough's first participation after breaking a finger on the left hand. He hit three three-point goals off-the-bench in that victory.

Without saying Hansbrough would have made ‘the' difference in State's losses to Arkansas and Tennessee, Stansbury certainly agrees he would have made some difference. "We miss Ben's skill level out there. He was our leading assist guy with a two-to-one ratio, he's our best free throw shooter, our best three-point shooter, and a guy with a little experience. All those elements, we've missed, it's probably exposed the weakness of our team in some ways. It's made us play a lot of freshmen."

Three of whom put in double-digit minutes Saturday against Tennessee, with a fourth getting in seven minutes. The rookies provided a combined ten points and nine rebounds; not a washout but not much different than Hansbrough would have provided by himself in a typical game. Certainly opponents are able to guard State differently depending on which rookies are on the court and where.

Hansbrough's replacement in the starting squad, redshirt frosh Phil Turner, has particularly struggled in the last few games to provide points. Stansbury notes that Turner has done some things well, and he has worked hard on rebounding and to defend off-guards. "Naturally we'd like to have more offense out of him," said the coach. But he added that since State went back to a three-guard set opponents have been able to match-up with Turner more consistently and some of the open shooting spots or driving gaps he had in a four-guard set have closed.

"But Phil has hung in there, and he's had to play big minutes. That will help our team down the road when we get Ben back." And while Stansbury did not say there is any thought of altering the lineup at this point, neither did the coach rule it out. Certainly true rookie Ravern Johnson gave a quick spark Saturday with a couple of baskets in ten minutes.

Though they didn't get much in the way of points, backup posts Brian Johnson and Elgin Bailey did combine for six rebounds. And rookie Bailey blocked two shots showing his most aggressive play of the season. Maybe too much so as he earned a technical in the second half for two Vol free throws…while State was also shooting charity chips. Still, these big Dogs on the bench are being counted on increasingly. Stansbury also recalls how they performed at Alabama when starting center Jarvis Varnado got in fast foul trouble, and F/C Charles Rhodes was playing on a bum ankle.

"Elgin and Brian gave us great minutes off the bench," said Stansbury. "It could be the same Wednesday night."

The real concern to Stansbury at this point is the health of State's rebounding. It was one thing to get edged on the glass by an Arkansas squad with a physical, veteran front line. Getting beat on the boards 42-32 by a smaller Volunteer team, particularly the 18 offensive rebounds for 18 second-chance points, is another matter entirely.

Yes, State has lost to two quality clubs. "But I don't like that stat no matter where the game is played or who you're playing," said Stansbury. "It's an area we've got to get back to doing better at, no matter who or where we're playing."

Game-time is 7:00 Wednesday with no telecast scheduled.

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