Bulldogs Prepping For SEC West Showdown

Give Rick Stansbury credit. Neither the effects of a few sick-days and accompanying medications, nor the campus buzz building for Saturday's SEC West showdown with Arkansas, have dulled the coach's sense of humor. Asked what he anticipates of game-day, "Probably nobody will come, it'll be dead," Stansbury dead-panned. "You won't have to worry about no atmosphere. It'll be quiet."

Sure. As quiet as a riot. With a packed house expected, ESPN1 present, and a couple of familiar foes playing for the Division lead—not to mention post-season positioning—the Humphrey Coliseum concessionaires could consider offering earplugs for Saturday sale when the Bulldogs and Razorbacks tip it off just after 3:00. Besides the happy howls of fans and students allowed in, there will be moans from those unable to secure a day's ducat.

And, "I see no reason why the Hump won't do its part," said Stansbury. Of course what is of more matter is will Mississippi State (16-7, 7-2 SEC) do their part against Arkansas (17-6, 6-3 SEC). A win would give the Bulldogs a two-game lead and big leg-up on the Razorbacks going into the last three weeks of SEC season. For their part Arkansas needs to steal a road win to not just catch State in the West and overall standings, but score the tiebreak with a sweep of the regular-season series.

Junior guard Jamont Gordon knows which outcome he prefers. "It'd be nice to get this win and get a comfortable lead."

Nice? Clearly Gordon is taking the same one-at-a-time tack as his coach. Not that Stansbury will admit discussing the SEC-situation with his team, calling it unnecessary. "You guys make it available every day," he told reporters Thursday afternoon prior to practice.

"Kids understand Arkansas is right up there with us. But we say all the time it's one win or one loss for either team. Naturally when you're fighting with somebody towards the top it may be magnified some. But it's a long way to the finish line." True, but all involved understand that Saturday's winner will take a long step closer to that line and ahead of the loser.

The thing is, the Bulldogs have been here before, this season. Not even three weeks ago, in fact, and things didn't turn out well. For State, that is, after taking a 78-58 thumping in Fayetteville. The loss ended a five-SEC-win start to the schedule and ended the Dogs only appearance (to date) in the national polls. Meanwhile, the win got Arkansas back on the winning track forecast for a veteran ball club all along.

Senior forward Charles Rhodes says the January 30 loss still stings. "Because I don't think we played our best basketball. We went in there undefeated (in SEC play) and we'd just got ranked. I think it was too much going on. Right now I think we're back focused and will be able to show our stuff Saturday."

Stansbury certainly wants to see more good stuff in the rematch…though as he notes, the Dogs didn't do everything badly in that game. His team out-shot Arkansas overall, and led at the first timeout. "Then (UA guard Sonny) Weems knocks down three threes in a row and got them going on a 14-0 spurt." Which State never recovered from. A rash of 22 turnovers didn't help the cause. They were also beaten on the boards, though this is no shame considering the big, experienced front line Arkansas puts on-court. Though in that game senior Charles Thomas did not play, which made UA's win all the more impressive.

Mississippi native Thomas is one sub-plot to the showdown, particularly for Rhodes. The two had some good battles back when Rhodes' Lanier High met arch-rival Provine with Thomas. Now barring a SEC Tournament meeting, which did happen last March, these friends will face off against each other for one final time.

"It's going to be real intense Saturday since he's my old buddy from Jackson," said Rhodes, who had a double-double in Fayetteville with 11 points, 15 rebounds. He's had two more D-Ds since, and eight total for the year. But had the Bulldogs played this past mid-week Rhodes might have struggled to get double-anything. Stansbury isn't the only member of the MSU camp afflicted by flu-like symptoms lately; Rhodes and backup center Brian Johnson have been ill as well. Rhodes said he'll be ready by the weekend and was glad for having Sunday and Tuesday off.

So the open date came at an unexpectedly perfect time for State. Beside health concerns, it gave the Dogs a break while Arkansas was taking a 93-71 loss at Tennessee. Guard Barry Stewart watched a good bit of the game ("They got in some foul trouble early," he said); Stansbury said he saw a little; while Rhodes and Gordon claimed they didn't tune in at all. All Dogs got to review that action during scouting today and tomorrow anyway.

"We've had a different kind of week, I think we got a lot of rest," said Stewart. "We got some workouts in. And we're preparing for the game." A game, the sophomore adds, which has no relation at all to the first meeting. "It's gone, it's a new day, it's a game. We have to prepare for this one, that one doesn't matter. No revenge, we have to take every game the same."

It's not coach-speak at all when Stansbury praises the opponent. "Arkansas is one of the most talented teams in this league. One of the most talented and most experienced. And a team that's had their way with us more than anybody we've played, probably. They're big, strong, athletic, and have a great player in Weems."

What soph Weems, nor any of Arkansas' six seniors, have is a success in Starkville where the Razorbacks have not won since 2000. Just don't expect Stansbury to promote that fact. "It has nothing to do with the game. They have a different team and coach, we have a different team. Can we show up because we've won seven in a row against them and not play? Y'all know the answer to that.

"We've been pretty good here. But they have some things that give you an opportunity to do it, though. There aren't many teams more experienced than Arkansas, with six seniors in the top eight guys."

All that experience ought to help Arkansas as SEC season winds around into what is shaping up as a frantic final stretch drive. Yet even if the Dogs are on-average younger, after three months of play there are no more real rookies by mid-February. Nor do they need constant reminding of what is at stake this weekend. After all, they've been here before says Rhodes, who wants to take care of business un-done three weeks ago.

"If we would have won we'd be three games up, I think we focused on that too much. Now we're just focusing on winning the ball game."


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