"Things have taken more shape, there's four games left and it's more defined where things are," Stansbury said Monday morning. "It's more of a job now keeping them focused on things. Because we've got it at the point now we can control what we need to get done." Oh, and he wasn't just talking in Division terms. Stansbury's team isn't entirely out of the overall SEC chase yet behind 11-1 and soon-to-be #1 ranked Tennessee.
But beyond league finish and conference tourney seeding, Mississippi State is back in control of their post-season situation. At 18-8 overall, and with the RPI improving weekly, the Bulldogs are sliding towards the shinier side of the NCAA selection bubble. A good position to be in by late February…and as fragile as the next game, which in State's case happens to be a Wednesday home date with Auburn (14-11, 4-8 SEC). Arkansas is at Alabama that evening.
The Dogs have seen, and succeeded, against Auburn already this season with a 83-64 road win February 9. The first meeting was essentially settled in just 80 seconds as State bolted to a 10-0 lead and never looked back. "It was just one of those starts," said Stansbury, "we got the ball inside then hit a couple of threes. Everything we did was right offensively. The only negative was we turned the ball over 22, 24 times."
And several of those miscues were as much the fault of MSU getting too comfortable with big leads in the second half, as Auburn never made a real run at getting back into contention. Otherwise the Bulldogs had their way with the Tigers on both ends of the floor, including a 46-27 edge in rebounds.
"But that game was that game," said Stansbury. It's a new team coming in here now. We sure can't look at that win and think we're going to be able to do the same thing."
When the MSU coach talks of a ‘new team' he doesn't mean the Tigers have changed or added personnel. It will be the same four-guard, one-forward lineup as three weeks ago, the same under-sized and under-strength team that relies on perimeter scoring and fast ball movement to compete. What is ‘new' is how much better Auburn is playing now, snapping a five-loss streak with two wins by solid margins around a strong effort at Tennessee.
Which means Auburn is entirely capable of coming to Starkville and playing SEC spoiler. "They've proved it," Stansbury said. "They went into Ole Miss and won." And Sunday, the Tigers held the home court over Alabama. Naturally the matchups should favor State in terms of muscle and depth. Still…
"Auburn presents a lot of challenges," Stansbury said. "Every game they go into they have an offensive advantage, they have so many mis-matches. And when they shoot it like they did yesterday they're awful hard to beat." Certainly State's coach doesn't want his team assuming they can waltz away in the opening minutes and cruise to victory.
Which is also an apt way of describing Mississippi State's big-picture outlook for the rest of this regular season. For a few tense moments Saturday that picture was dimming as the Dogs trailed South Carolina by two points with a few seconds left and the Gamecocks shooting free throws. Fortunately only one charity chance made good, and the remaining ticks were sufficient for guard Jamont Gordon—who somehow evaded being fouled enough to stop play at mid-court—to drive in passing range of guard Ben Hansbrough. His tying-try from the corner missed but Hansbrough was fouled in the attempt and made all three free throws to force overtime where State finished the job.
The last (regulation) second dramatics were all the more interesting as on the previous trip Gordon had forced a trey-try to lead while defended. This time the all-SEC junior didn't take all the burden on himself, Stansbury said.
"It's one of those times Jamont made a good decision. The thing that gets overlooked was Charles (Rhodes) was able to screen his man off and get Ben open." And of course Hansbrough coolly stuck all three attempts with zeros on the clock. A loss would have chopped State's loop-lead in half and put Arkansas, which seems to have a much more favorable stretch-run schedule, in good position. Now the Razorbacks need plenty of help just to catch up with the Dogs and hope the right tie-breaks fall their way.
Meanwhile, State not only controls the West but also has by far the best chance on this side at drawing favorable NCAA attention. Which is not what their coach really wants to discuss at this point. Nor should he need to. "If we had them locked up where they don't read or hear anything it would be different. But with media the way it is, it's 24/7. My job is more than talk about it—because there's no need to talk about it—is to keep them grounded and keep their sights on what you have to do."
Part of the focus is forgetting, whether it is how easily success came at Auburn or how close they were to defeat Saturday. Stansbury isn't counting on carry-over either, though he said it was a plus to win in overtime with both Gordon and center Jarvis Varnado on the bench via fouls. Having others step up in OT is something to call upon when future games get tense; not something to ride into Wednesday's tipoff.
Besides, "We're trying to compete for a championship. You hope that's enough motivation itself."