West Champs Have Title Shots In Last Week

Last week they secured both a conference tournament bye and then a Division championship. Now the Bulldogs have one more week in which to both play for a bigger league title, and to improve their positioning when the NCAA Tournament roll is called on March 16.

Mississippi State goes into the final week of the regular schedule with two games left and all sorts of optimistic outcomes there for the taking. Or, winning. Coach Rick Stansbury's squad is 20-8 after a successful trip to Florida, where they scored a 68-58 victory that settled the Western Division championship. It is the sixth West crown, shared or outright, for State since 1992, and the most titles of any Division member.

Yet this week the Bulldogs are also in position to think of another sort of SEC crown. At 11-3 they are only a game behind East leader Tennessee for the conference championship. Each has a pair of contests left, with the 12-2 Volunteers going to Florida this Wednesday before hosting South Carolina Saturday. The Bulldogs are at Vanderbilt, then end the schedule hosting LSU. Tennessee defeated the Dogs 76-71 in early February, but as there are no tiebreaks for the conference championship State can, with help, end up on top.

All of which the Bulldogs know by now, with no need for a coach's reminder. "What it is, is what it is," Stansbury said Monday morning. "We're playing well, were going in playing with a lot of confidence."

Every bit of which will be required Wednesday evening in Nashville (7:00, no telecast) against a Vanderbilt squad that is playing well, as well. And, plays its very best in the SEC's most unique venue: famous and infamous Memorial Gymnasium. A home court where the Commodores boast a 18-0 advantage this season.

"It's obvious we're going where nobody has had any success all year long," Stansbury said. "It's never an easy place to play. But what make it even more difficult is they have a very good team. We'll be in there on senior night, too."

The Commodores aren't going to win the East, which Tennessee has locked up already. But they are just a game in back of a Kentucky team that just lost its best post player, so a second-place spot in the Division and first-day bye in the SEC Tournament remain realistic goals. Besides, Coach Kevin Stallings' team is already playing for post-season seeding as a NCAA Tournament berth is all but certain.

And as Stansbury noted, it will be the last home game for the upperclassmen. This group would draw quite a crowd on their own to say farewell, headlined by league-leading scorer Shan Foster and fellow backcourt gunner Alex Gordon. They have 177 treys between them, pointing to Vanderbilt's annual offensive prowess of perimeter punch. Yet it is rookie postman Alex Ogilvy balancing the act with inside scoring and high-percentage shooting, that has Vanderbilt solidly in the NCAA picture.

Then of course there is that home-floor advantage. Only, Mississippi State has had success in Nashville including wins by Stansbury's 2002 and '04 teams. And last season in Starkville the Dogs dominated 83-70. Still Stansbury knows better than to count on anything going well in Nashville, for visiting players and coach alike, if for no other reason than the special communications challenges presented by baseline-benches.

Where Stansbury can normally get his squad's attention in Humphrey Coliseum by putting foot-to-floor, "Unfortunately up there stomping won't be good enough. That end line runs east-west up there and I can't stomp loud enough for them to hear me. I've got a bad heel, too." Just as State's coach had last year by this time, to the point he had to wear sneakers at the SEC Tournament. He's showing the same signs again. "Now I'm more cautious of it, I wear some guards inside my dress shoes." Besides, "I think the refs have helped solve that problem, they've slowed that down a little bit. I think Kevin whistles to get their attention."

Mississippi State is certainly getting more attention here at the intense end of the regular schedule. Six wins in the last seven games have not only clinched the West and put the Dogs in at least contention for the SEC crown. The success has put State in much better shape for earning an at-large NCAA berth; in fact barring a total swoon this week and next, the Bulldogs can almost count on bid now. Almost. Just that bit of remaining uncertainty should keep State on its best game as the schedule plays out.

And the best part of the game has been on the defensive end. The Bulldogs took on the SEC's best shooting offense Saturday and held Florida to 36% accuracy, 22-of-61 from the field. The Gators were 7-of-25 at the arc, too, a large factor in their scoring only 59 points at home. Statistically the Dogs might have played better games; realistically, this might have been their most impressive performance given the site and situation.

"I think we're a pretty good defensive team," Stansbury said. "It's what you do on the road, that's where you have to be at your best." The Dogs have definitely been at their best in road wins at South Carolina and Florida. With the league's leading shot-blocker, Jarvis Varnado, guarding the goal while Jamont Gordon controls the other team's play-making, State is on top of its defensive game going into March. They lead the league in shooting defense and scoring defense alike, though Stansbury stressed the former.

"To me that's more important than points allowed because points can be based on style. I put more emphasis on field goal percentages, and we've been pretty good there."

But something State has also gotten suddenly and unexpectedly good at lately is shooting the ball themselves. In fact by knocking the Gators down a notch, the Bulldogs now are the SEC's top shooting squad (all-season). "I think that kind of gets lost," Stansbury said. Not that his team shot great at Gainesville, 42% and 7-of-21 on trey-tries. Still this squad has upgraded the shooting and scoring as the season has progressed, which is no coincidence given their improved NCAA status.

Headlining the offense this past week was F/C Charles Rhodes, with 45 points and 17 rebounds in the two wins. That earned the senior SEC Player of the Week honors Monday.

Perhaps the best measure of how much better the entire offense has gotten is that State won at Florida despite an awful shooting day for leading scorer Jamont Gordon. For that matter the junior guard has struggled in his last two road games with a combined 4-of-18 shooting. And at Florida he was held to a career-low four points. Ironically his previous low was five points as a freshman at Vanderbilt in his home town.

Stansbury doesn't want to hear talk of any slump though, saying scoring gets too much attention. "I thought he had a great game, he played a good floor game, he was a very good defender in that zone, he got into gaps, contested shots, got to loose balls. Just because he didn't score doesn't mean he didn't have a good game for us, he did so many of those intangible things."

At the same time State will need all the tangibles available Wednesday night in Nashville. Intangibles, too, if the Bulldogs are go have a Saturday shot at adding another, even better sort of league championship to their 2008 resume.

This weekend's game (3:00, Raycom) will be Senior Day for State. Also, members of the 1962-63 Bulldog team, the first to play in the NCAA Tournament, will be in Humphrey Coliseum for special recognition.

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