Regardless of records, the scenario is already clear enough. Whoever leaves the court successful Saturday will have the Division's inside-track for the last three weeks of SEC season. Even, pending what happens on the East side, for the overall conference crown. And of course overshadowing all February contenders is the need to strengthen their cases for March NCAA favor.
"And when you're down to seven games, they all start taking on more importance in the standings," Stansbury said. "It'll be a big game on both teams' parts." Which is why a coaching creature-of-habit actually welcomes this break in the slate. "We've got seven games left and physically and mentally it's probably a pretty good time, you like to keep to your rhythm, but we'll use this week to rest some, and try to get better at the same time."
Certainly Mississippi State wants a better result from their rematch with the Razorbacks. Three weeks ago it was Arkansas handing the Dogs their first league loss, 78-58 in Fayetteville, which along with a following defeat to Tennessee cost MSU both their overall SEC lead and sole control of the West. And, a #25 ranking in the coaches poll.
Since then MSU has bounced back with wins over Alabama and Auburn which, combined with an Arkansas open date, sent State back in front of the Division pack by a half-game. They're assured to be no worse than still tied for first after Wednesday. Though there will also be all sorts of mixed outlooks on that contest in Knoxville, between the need to keep a leg-up on the Razorbacks and the hope of Tennessee falling within striking distance again.
But Stansbury tried this morning to downplay another aspect to Saturday that will certainly be a theme around campus all week. The coach doesn't want to hear talk of revenge for that 20-point thrashing; "The motivating factor is just because it's our next game," he said.
"Now, everybody understands that Arkansas is one of the better teams in this league and at the top of the league too. That in itself takes on enough meaning. Revenge, I promise will have nothing to do with that. It's an important game to win. We didn't play well at Arkansas had a lot to do with that."
Not-well was an understatement for State's 22-turnover evening at Walton Arena, more than enough to offset decent shooting—actually a few points better than the Razorbacks—and 24 points from Jamont Gordon. Arkansas took control in the first half on sharp outside shooting and didn't let the Dogs back in contention. So Stansbury doesn't want his team taking an emotional outlook on the rematch, he will insist on an all-business approach.
"It won't be a revenge factor from the margin of victory."
That whipping snapped a nine-win streak for State and spoiled a 5-0 SEC mark, but might have been a healthy reality-check for the Bulldogs who had built their league-lead by beating struggling SEC counterparts. In fact the only MSU victim with a positive conference record so-far is 5-2 Kentucky, which has gotten much, much better since a 69-64 score in the Hump a month ago.
Yet while beating back-markers Alabama and Auburn this past week was expected, how the Bulldogs took care of their business showed the team should be hitting a successful stride at the right time. It is no coincidence either that Stansbury has his full roster available again. After missing three games and subbing in a fourth, guard Ben Hansbrough returned to the starting lineup for the Auburn trip and matched his season-high of 20 points in the process.
State was playing well without the sophomore wing-guard; with Hansbrough back the Bulldogs should be that much better. Especially as older Dogs Gordon and Charles Rhodes play, well, like old Dogs.
"I've said from day-one you need your best players playing their best," Stansbury said. "You need that consistency home or away." The all-SEC pairing has definitely delivered. Gordon hasn't failed to score double-digits since the calendar flipped and averaged 23.4 points in SEC play. At Auburn he scored 24 to go with 13 rebounds, and only missed a ‘triple-double' by two assists.
Stansbury agrees that Gordon is very much in the picture for SEC Player of the Year. "I think he's one of the guys, there are several guys in this league but he has definitely put himself in position. Not just with his play but helping the team get in this position. He's had a lot to do with elevating where we are right now."
Then again, a few votes might come off Gordon's pile because they go to Rhodes. After an erratic mid-season with ankle issues, the senior has returned to the SEC spotlight with three double-doubles in the last four games. Stansbury thought Rhodes was at his best-yet in mid-December, then came the practice ankle injury that literally had him limping through the early weeks of SEC season.
Now it's Rhodes who is leaving foes hurting, averaging 17.2 points and 10 rebounds in the last five games. Not to mention 11 blocked shots as the eldest Dog has re-claimed his big-man status around both baskets. "Again, he's a senior," Stansbury said. "And if that light comes on and stays bright, hey, he's got seven games left to shine.
"That's what our senior and best player is supposed to do, elevate you team's play, and he's been able to do that. No question, a healthy Charles Rhodes playing with urgency makes him better and the team better."
So does having Hansbrough in the backcourt mix again, which Stansbury noted frees more court-pace for both Gordon and Rhodes to work with another shooter on the floor. And, maintains a higher level of experience for more minutes as the freshmen who had been filling Hansbrough's place aren't asked to pick up so much slack.
If other evidence was needed that the Bulldogs might well be peaking, it comes from what is happening now when the game-clock isn't running. That is, when State is shooting free throws. By no means are these Dogs dead-eye marksmen at the charity stripe yet. But after going 23-of-26 at Auburn, and 15-of-22 against Alabama, the coach is encouraged this trend is headed in the better direction.
"We've just changed some routines up," he said. "We'd basically done something the same way for my ten years and it hasn't been a major problem." But ranking 11th or 12th, depending on how Alabama did that night, in SEC foul-shooting was too foul for the coach to accept. Not with most other aspects of the squad going well. "I'm not saying the change makes any difference," he admitted. "But sometimes just doing something different shakes up what you're doing.
Besides, "Whatever we changed to it couldn't be worse!" And whether by intent or just irony State has hit more charity chances of late. "Maybe it put a different kind of mindset, or shook up what we were trying to do," the coach mused. "I don't ant to talk about it! But I think in the last two, two-and-a-half weeks we've shot them better as a team."
The Bulldogs now have all week to keep working on free throws, as well as all other parts of their practice plans, before putting it into action Saturday afternoon.