Mississippi State has a full week on the SEC road, traveling to Ole Miss for a Wednesday West shootout before heading the other direction to take on South Carolina this Saturday. Never mind that the Bulldogs are back on a roll, and both foes are a combined 3-9 in their last six league games…with one of the W's a Gamecock win at Oxford. State hasn't come this far to take anyone or anything for granted now.
"This week is going to be a big opportunity for us," said guard Barry Stewart. "We've got two big road games and we're looking forward to going and getting the job done."
There's reason for State to expect they can get it done away from home, with a 3-1 road record in SEC action. Then again, all three wins came against the bottom-half of the West with the loss at Arkansas, which is now MSU's only competition for the Division title. So the Dogs still do have something to prove about their road-prowess. And especially in Wednesday night's matchup.
Nobody knows this better than Rhodes. The team's only senior starter has had a great three years against the rival Rebels, averaging over 21 points on 69% shooting in five games. Yet there is a void in his rivalry resume. "I haven't ever won in Oxford," the Jackson native said. "That's a big step. Hopefully we can go over there and get us a W."
Rhodes, and more to the point State could really use another road win regardless of victim. Coach Rick Stansbury knows better than to assume his team will keep to winning ways without a challenge though. Not even a SEC slump that has seen the Rebels fall from 15-1 and nationally ranked to 17-7 and just 3-7 in the league encourages the coach. "They're the same team that was 15th in the country," Stansbury noted today.
"Naturally when you lose a couple of games this league that you think you should have won it's a fragile thing confidence-wise. But we know when we get there forget all the records, how anybody is playing, the game itself changes. They're going to play with extreme emotion."
Nor are MSU players figuring on a repeat-romp on the order of their 88-68 victory in Humphrey Coliseum back on January 26, regardless of the opposing paths each club has taken since. Rhodes knows how difficult it can be to repeat in a rematch. "You can ask Arkansas that!" he said. State lost by 20 at Fayetteville, then this past Saturday took a closer-than-necessary 80-74 win in The Hump.
"You still have to be tough," guard/forward Jamont Gordon said. "And I know Ole Miss is going to be looking to get us back." Of course the Rebels would just like to get back on any sort of winning track. And while their own NCAA hopes are faint at best now, Ole Miss can certainly play a spoiler's role here in the West. Then of course there is always the rivalry aspect and the portion of pride that can be salvaged.
"We haven't watched them and don't know what is going on with them," Stewart said. "Really it's not important to us, we're trying to get our job done. We know what we have to do to get to the tournament."
"That's one of those games that if it doesn't bring it out of you not much will," said Stansbury, who is 15-5 in the series with four wins in Oxford. "And it's different on the road, at home you get a lot of artificial emotion on the road you have to bring it from within."
Certainly no Dog will be more motivated than Rhodes in his last (regular-season at least) meeting with the state's other program. "I do want to leave an impression," he admitted. And while there's been plenty of words from both sides in the past, old Dog Rhodes doesn't anticipate anything getting out of control on the court.
"I think both teams have classy players, I don't think too much trash-talking will be there. It'll just be a lot of bumping and shoving because everybody is trying to compete and it's a rivalry game. I know they're very pumped-up for this game."
It would be hard finding a team more pumped for their last few games than a bunch of Bulldogs who responded to consecutive losses with three strong showings. State is back to defending like the SEC's top stoppers, which they are; in scoring, shooting, and blocking. And not just for the season as a whole but in league play which is more meaningful.
But the offense has upgraded as well, with 45% shooting in the last three wins including 21 three-point goals. It's no coincidence the Dogs have rounded-out their SEC game with the return to health of Rhodes and guard Ben Hansbrough. Rhodes has been a beast inside on offense, while on the other end skinny center Jarvis Varnado has been such a stout shot-blocker that many foes have almost stopped attacking the rim. And while Varnado takes four, at most five shots per game, he's making 77% of attempts. Also not coincidentally, Varnado and all Dogs have become proficient at the free throw line. The last ten points against Arkansas were all charity chances, epitomizing MSU's improvements there.
And, the sort of things that must be done to win away from home. Defense, rebounding, free throws matter more on the road. "Because you're not always going to shoot it as well," Stansbury said. "And if you shoot it well, then you really have chances to win."
Then again, all games are also chances to not-win and "that road" as Stansbury calls it always has dangerous stretches. Consecutive trips to Ole Miss and South Carolina might not look as intimidating as the upcoming stretch of games at Florida and Vanderbilt. But the Rebels and Gamecocks offer challenges enough for the moment. Having worked so hard to build a decent Division lead, the Bulldogs can't afford lapses and losses now.
"So we've really got to be focused on these away game," said Rhodes. "Because we need them. We really need them."