"I felt this was the best team I'd ever been on. And the guys took forward what I told them. We finally got here and this situation is the goal we've set. Now we have to make the best of it."
Rhodes certainly made the best of his last SEC season, or at least he did once healthy. The first weeks of January were hampered by ankle issues; once over that the senior played, well, like a (Coaches) first-team All-SEC postman. He scored double-digits in 14-straight games, averaged 19.9 points, and shot one miss under 66%. "I guess I can just say after my injury it really scared me," Rhodes said. "After I came off it I just turned it up a notch. They were winning a lot without me, but I knew once I got back in the lineup we were going to roll. And we're here where we're at."
"I've just got to approach it like a team effort. Because I know this I my last tournament, win or lose. It's real tough for me, but I want to make sure I go out with a bang. I think we've got a good chance."
THE MEANING IS CLEAR: In the pre-practice press conference, Jamont Gordon ran afoul of one of those verbal mis-steps anyone who has ever spoken publicly knows. Talking about teammate Rhodes, the junior guard said "He definitely turned into the beast that he are."
Of course grammar is optional since everyone knew exactly what Gordon meant. And, what Rhodes means to the MSU gameplan. "He's been dominating down there," Gordon added, "making our job easier on the offensive end by causing mis-matches."
LAST DANCE? Rhodes wasn't the lone Dog with a NCAA-or-bust outlook on this year. Gordon tested the NBA waters, having experts evaluate his chances of being drafted or making a roster last summer. Because he stayed within defined deadlines he did not cost himself the chance to also enter the draft pool this summer and still be able to return for a senior season.
Gordon said today that the opportunity to play in the national tourney at least once weighed into his choice to return for a junior year. "It definitely played a lot," he said, though of course the expert opinions of last summer mattered more. Still, "I hadn't had the experience my first two seasons. I wanted to come back and give my team a chance to get that experience. And me to get that experience."
As to what he has in mind after this season concludes, Gordon keeps up the mixed messages. He'll talk about how good the 2009 team can be as the sophomore and freshman develop and even say he hopes to be back with them. Asked then if he really, really wants to be back in college another years, the sly smile appears again.
"I kinda do. I've got a few weeks to think about that. So I might be back, I don't know." But as he muses on the outlook, "They're going to be really good. Ben, Barry, Jarvis, and the freshmen that came in will be ready to help them."
UNGUARDABLE: Whatever Gordon opts to do, he has certainly established himself among the elite ‘guards' in the land. The position has to be put in parenthesis because Gordon can't be confined to a single duty or description. "I think he's one of the most versatile players in the country," said Stansbury, who couldn't vote for his own player on the All-SEC team but didn't have to. Gordon made first-team for both the coaches and media, and is on the latests lists for both the Cousy and Wooden national awards.
Those are special honors, but then Gordon is a special talent. "He's not your typical point guard," Stansbury explained to Oregon media. "He's a point guard in a fullback's body and has the same kind of mentality to go with with that body. He's in that attack mode all the time."
Actually Gordon was full-speed-ahead from the day he arrived in Starkville. And, "It got him in trouble," said the coach. Especially when Stansbury began converting freshman Gordon from wing-man to point guard, a move the rookie didn't enjoy at first. Since then though Gordon has not just adapted to the job, he's thrived as a passer first, play-maker and scorer second.
"To this credit the last one-and-a-half years he's settled down and realized he doesn't have to score every possession," Stansbury said. "And he's a bad matchup for everybody. You have to stop him in transition first, he's going to go to those backboards, he has the physicalness to finish in traffic."
But, the awareness of how much more he can be when playing off others. Barry Stewart knows better than most how Gordon has adapted. "I can see how his game has changed. People said he couldn't do anything shooting-wise, he's made himself a good shooter and a great player."
A good enough shooter that Gordon is just two treys behind Stewart in the team three-point chase, 59 to 56. Of course both are trailing Ben Hansbrough's 59. Stewart is also one ahead of Gordon on the career list, 126 to 125.
NO FUELING THE FIRES: In his four seasons Rhodes has rarely been at loss for a quote or comment. Naturally this has made him a favorite of fans and media alike…though he's also caused some cringing in the basketball office over the years. But it was the mature Charles at the podium Thursday afternoon. Asked whether or not Oregon presented a tough matchup for MSU's lineup, the senior was almost…reticent.
"I don't want to say, I might make the bulletin (board) for Oregon!" Rhodes finally responded. "I'll just say it's a good matchup, (Maarty) Leunen is a great player and I guess I'll be matching up with him."
Stansbury has often wished Rhodes would have bit his tongue but never more than at the end of the SEC Tournament semifinals, when after contact on his shot-to-tie Rhodes got neither the call nor basket. After a rebound scrum resulted in a foul on State, Rhodes' comments earned a technical. Even now neither he nor coach has admitted, on-record, what was said. Stansbury doesn't think there will be any after-effects on Charles, though.
"Kids forget about those things in a hurry. What was done was done. We'd all agree Charles has played awful well down the stretch for us. We wouldn't have won the West by three games or even won the West without the way Charles played. That's one of those things you wish you had back, but you don't."
GETTING SPECIFIC: Rhodes could offer more insight into the team-matchup, though. Since the pairing was announced writers have compared Oregon, at least on offense, to such SEC foes as Tennessee for their everybody-shoots approach; or Auburn for playing a five-guard, one-small forward lineup that avoids the lane for longer shots.
But Rhodes had another matchup in mind. He thinks Oregon plays more like Florida. "Because of the offense they run. Florida runs with (Marresse) Speights in the middle, Oregon runs with #50 (Joevan Catron) in the middle. They always pass it to him while looking for the guards coming off doubles and triples." Screens, he meant.
Meanwhile Oregon players and coach compared Mississippi State to Pac-10 rival Southern Cal, a lineup built around a shot-blocker in back with a physical frontcourt.
SWAT TEAM: That shot-blocker of course is Jarvis Varnado, who as a sophomore has already destroyed the MSU season blocks record with 148. Varnado is, incredibly to old SEC hands, only nine blocks behind the league season record set by a certain LSU center of 1992. Varnado weighs at least 100 pounds less than Shaquille O'Neal as a collegian, but he's chasing that standard of 157 blocks in a season.
And, setting the national pace. He's five blocks ahead of Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet going into the tournament, a tenth-of-a-point ahead in average. Stansbury thought Varnado would be productive this year blocking balls, simply by extrapolating his 67 swats as a freshman getting 13 minutes a game to a starter getting around 30. "But nobody predicted this," the coach said.
Or, that the MSU team would smash the SEC record of 240 blocks by Kentucky in 1998. The Dogs had 254 when they arrived in Little Rock. Rhodes is the 6th-leading blocker in program history in his own right.
DUCK! But, will Oregon give Varnado, Rhodes, et.al. opportunities to block the sort of shots they've been swatting all season? Having a stopper under the goal is well and good, unless the opponent has no intention of going that direction in the first place.
"It's a different matchup," Stansbury said. "It's not the best matchup for Jarvis because they're going to spread the floor and bring their five-guy away from the goal. Naturally that takes away some of Jarvis' shot blocking ability. Their style, our style, that's not the best fit for Jarvis. You wish it was a low-post guy who only scored in the low post! But they're going to slide a 51% three-point shooter in the five spot."
"It's going to be a real good test for our bigs," Varnado said. "Not staying in the paint and getting out there and contesting 3-pointers." Though, the center has done that, swooping out of the lane to swat medium- and long-range jumpers. But that's more the specialty of Gordon, who hasn't blocked a lot of shots (20) but gets his money's worth when he does.
For his part Gordon intends to stay grounded on defense, watch those multi-screens, and chase Duck marksmen. There's plenty to choose from. "I know they've got a lot of good players and shoot the ball really well," he said. "They've got four guys that can really shoot the ball. We've guarded teams like this before so we'll be OK, I think."
No SEC team State guarded, win or lose, shot 50% against the Dogs this year; and they rank second in national field goal defense going into the post-season. So this team knows it can guard. Oregon is just another challenge and chance to prove it. Besides, Stansbury said, his team presents the Ducks some defensive issues of another sort.
"The team that utilizes matchup problems the best is going to win that game. If we can make them pay some, have them defend us inside, it's going to help up. It's who can win that chess match that's going to win this game."
State has had four days to scout the Ducks on tapes, both those made by the MSU staff off televised games—just on the chance of a matchup—and those provided by Oregon in tape-exchange. Besides that, Stansbury has a few contacts from the West Coast area who have at least seen the team. Yes, he would communicate with them. No, he won't name names.
"I couldn't tell you that anyway, Oregon would know it and know where it came from!"
BIG DOGS: State certainly has the advantage if this turns into a grinding game. Every starter is stouter than his Oregon counterpart, save the 210 Varnado against either 220-pound Leunen or 235-pound Catron. But State's center definitely has the ‘jump' on both so it's a wash.
Even Stewart gets to enjoy a physical mismatch for one of the rare times this season, when he takes on Duck point guard Tajuan Porter—all 5-6, 150 pounds of him. It would seem a welcome chance for the 6-2, 170-pound soph to put a hurting on the other guy for a change. Stewart doesn't see it that way.
"Most of time smaller guards are harder to guard because they're so low to the ground and can get places quick. He's quick and can shoot it from dep. The thing you've got to try is to maintain his drive, keep him in front of you. You have to keep defending."
HELP! The emphasis on defense, and the natural tendency to run full-blast on offense, does take a toll even on the best-conditioned Dog. At the SEC Tournament, Stansbury stuck to the same SEC-season substitution pattern; between the 15th and 10th minutes of the first half the whole starting group will get a break. Usually posts like Rhodes and Varnado come out first, then Stewart and Hansbrough. And by the time they're rotating back in, Gordon will get his rest last of all.
But in that tournament the four backups who did get court time only averaged four to six minutes; the starters all averaged 37 or more. Had State made the finals, Stansbury might have used the backups more in a third game. Now, with a day between contests, he's likely to stay with the starters as long as practical. Though, "We'd like to sub and get some of those guys in early in the game." ‘Those guys' being centers Brian Johnson and Elgin Bailey and guards Phil Turner and Ravern Johnson.
Stewart is more blunt. "We're going to need our bench. Our starters are doing good but our bench is key. I don't think it's necessarily fatigue but when the bench comes in they have to add-to."
IRON DAWG: Nobody would seem to need rest more than Stewart, who against all expectations ended up first in minutes this year at 35.6 per-game. That was more than Gordon's 34.4, though at Atlanta Gordon did do a bit more duty. And for the SEC regular season Stewart, the smallest starter, was rarely on-court less than 36 and even 37 minutes.
"It's just the way it materialized on this team," Stansbury said. Besides, "Barry gets more minutes than anybody because he does double-duty." As in, when he returns to the floor and Gordon sits, Stewart takes the point…a role he plays as often as not the rest of the contest. Stansbury notes this has affected Stewart's outside shooting in the season-stretch. "But he's still a very effective player."
"Yeah, I'm surprised, just being a sophomore," said Stewart of topping the team in minutes. "But it's a challenge out there, running around and playing defense on guys, them on offense making passes, running plays, and shooting. But you just have to accept the challenge. It's something you have to love. Every opportunity on the court you've got to enjoy it."
MIXED SIGNALS: As he prepares his team for this tournament, Stansbury insists that State's frustrating finish at the previous one will have no after-effect. "Zero. We're put that chapter behind us. Hopefully it's closed and you open up the next one."
Except, his team certainly seemed to have Georgia on their minds. The MSU Bulldogs knew how close they were to the SECT finals and how much winning that game, much less the championship, would have improved their NCAA status, seedings, and bracket. Besides, there was just the still-stung player's pride.
"We didn't play that well in the SEC Tournament," Gordon said, calling it the "worst game" since the beginning of the season. But this is the post-season. "Now is the chance to show how good we really are. I think we're going to have a chance to go really far in this tournament."
QUICK CHANGE: State's public practice session saw the Dogs in a mix of their numbered maroon or white workout shirts…except for Billy Begley. The senior guard came to court in a black tee; a manager had to find a numberless shirt for him to practice in.
The reason? Nobody forgot anything. Begley had already been through a workout on his own and the regular shirt was being washed, not available for the open session.