Charles Rhodes was always SEC-bound, choosing State over Arkansas back in 2004. But he knows more about Memphis than other Dogs; or at least more about a couple of the Tigers, as Rhodes is buds with Antonio Anderson and Chris Douglas Roberts. "I hang out with Double-A the most, but sometimes with Douglas-Roberts," Charles said. "We're just good friends and whenever I go there in summer we hang together."
For Gordon—as well as fellow Volunteer State natives Barry Stewart and Jarvis Varnado—there should be a bit of extra spice to Sunday's showdown. Though none will come right out and say it, of course. In fact, "It's just another game to me," Gordon claims. "I ain't going to get over-excited because it's a Tennessee team. It's just another game. They are one of the top teams, but we approach every game the same way."
"It's always fun playing against your home state, but we have to approach it as a business," echoed Stewart. So oddly—or maybe not—it is Rhodes most excited about this game. When the bracket was announced last Sunday, Rhodes left the locker room quickly and did not report to a media conference. "I ran out on the floor and started thinking about playing Memphis," he revealed today. "I always want to play against the best and this is a great opportunity to play against one of the best teams in the nation."
And, against his Memphis buddies. Which is all the added incentive Rhodes needs. "I'll be coming to Memphis this summer and seeing them," he said. "I hope I'll be having that bragging rights!"
VOLUME CONTROL: Shuttling between the cities comes naturally to Rhodes. Talking of the matchup and anticipated Sunday atmosphere with contending fans bases, he even said "Memphis and Jackson, it's just down the street." Or I-55 at least. Either way, "When you think of Jackson, you think of Memphis. I just can't wait to play, it's going to be real crazy."
Not surprisingly, Memphis will have a larger portion of the Sunday crowd as Tiger fans anticipated both their top seeding and relatively local siting in Little Rock and bought up tickets in advance. Mississippi State ran through its allotted 550 ducats in no time last week but Bulldog folk were able to use brokers and services to obtain plenty more. So there will be no lack of back-and-forth, give-and-take in the stands.
And beyond the obvious fan-angles of attacking state kids who went out-of-state to play, the Bulldogs expect to hear verbal assaults on a teammate from farther away. Being younger brother of the nation's top player is something Ben Hansbrough has handled well these two seasons but foes just can't resist taking that at-tack. But getting under Hansbrough's skin isn't so easy, Rhodes notes. "He's handled it real nice.
"At South Carolina they were on him the whole game, I was so proud of him because he went to the line and knocked down all three free throws. I've got to say he's the X-factor of this team. Without Ben we wouldn't be where we are at right now."
SUREST SHOOTER: Who is the most accurate Bulldog from the field? Not Charles Rhodes despite his blazing percentage of the last two months. Nor is it Jarvis Varnado at 64.5% this soph season. Both yield to Brian Johnson as the surest shooter on the squad. The junior center is efficiency personified, especially in the 2008 portion of the schedule. In 16 SEC games and three tournament games, Johnson is 12-of-18 on his field goal attempts; 67% accuracy. Not that he is claiming supremacy on the squad just yet.
"I try to go in and do what I can," Johnson said. "I really don't think about that too much."
Nor does Johnson think about asserting himself more often on the offensive end. Sure, one shot per game makes Varnado seem a reckless gunner by comparison. Still, "I've got to take the opportunity that's there," Johnson said. "I try to do the smartest thing. I'm a pretty good shooter, that's not one of my strengths but if I'm open I will."
If you're a pretty good shooter, then why not shoot more often? Johnson counters nicely. "I mean, we're winning! So I won't try to fix something that's not broke."
M*A*S*H DOGS: Speaking of not-broke, Johnson came to State after two years at Louisville with knees recovering from injuries and operations. A redshirt winter and now a full varsity season later "They feel good," he said. "The only thing I have to do is strengthen my legs still." Noticing teammate Billy Begley was recording his interview, Johnson added "Me and Billy work out all the time. I think he's had about 32 surgeries, 33 coming up this summer, I think he tore a muscle in his ear."
With their mutual medical histories, Johnson and Begley might do well to leave Humphrey Coliseum on their own power. Or as Johnson said, "I think when I graduate I'll be 35."
SERIOUS BUSINESS: While part of the media pack stayed in the main press conference with Stansbury, a portion invaded State's locker room for additional space-filler. Senior Begley got into the spirit by turning ‘media' himself. Already shooting plenty of personal footage of his last dance with State, Begley borrowed a working press pass from Dawgs' Bite, handed his mini-cam to a teammate, and proceeded to interview manager Chris Gay. Using a Gatorade bottle for a mike, admittedly, but still asking probing questions. Such as, what conditioner Gay favored. Things were going well until Hansbrough pointed out a real TV cameraman shooting the scene. "Dude, you're going to be on CBS tonight!" Hansbrough cackled.
ICE, ICE BABY: If so, the camera also caught Hansbrough doing his imitation of a popsicle. The soph shooter was wearing no less than three icepacks after State's Saturday practice; one on each knee and the other on his right foot. "When I got a rebound last night me and Jamont met, he was trying to get the ball. I ran into his foot and kind of stubbed my toe."
So that was a bonus bag of ice. The knees, that's standard procedure after every game and practice for Hansbrough. "I try to take good care of my body," he said, even if it means looking like a baseball catcher after a weekend series. "I'm not that extreme, but I'm trying to take care and get ready to play the next day."
IN THE TALLER TIMBER: If any Bulldog would seem to need ice, it's Barry Stewart with the minutes he is on-court each game this soph season (see Thursday notebook). But the 6-2, 170-pounder also runs the nightly risk of requiring other medical attentions considering what Stewart has been doing the last few months. That is, rebounding the basketball.
Not merely chasing down long caroms, either, but slicing through the cracks and getting to balls coming right off the boards. Since mid-February he's averaged over six rebounds. "You just have to be smart and have a knack for it. I look for those big guys jumping and maybe I can get one they miss." Yes, Barry, but what if they don't miss you, when the tall timber comes crashing down? "I never worry about it, but it could happen any time!" he smiled.
"I don't mind. I've been able to rebound since high school, I averaged about seven something, so it's something I have in my game."
Something else Stewart is adding to his sophomore game is making plays for others. He has twice as many assists this year as all his freshman season, and is second only to Gordon in that column. In fact, through SEC season Stewart gradually turned more point than shooting guard as games progressed, taking some of the load off his elder cohort. It's worked well for the team, he thinks.
"Sometimes when ‘Mont is in the game I'll bring it up, because that will get our break started a little earlier." Whatever the reason, Stewart's development in other aspects of the game has made him the well-rounded cog in MSU's machine. "Coach has a lot of confidence in me. I know people look for me to hit threes but sometimes they don't fall. Doing other things, defending, rebounding, getting other players involved, that's even bigger."
FOUL SHOOTING: For all the talk of strengths on strengths in Sunday's matchup, it might well be which team overcomes their most glaring weakness that determines who moves on to the Sweet 16. To wit: free throw shooting. Or non-shooting in the case of these clubs.
Mississippi State spent much of the season listed last in SEC free-throwing, though they did climb as high (?) as tenth by March. Still overall accuracy of 64.5% is nothing to bark about…unless the other guys are even worse. And Memphis is, at 59.7%.
To their credit the Bulldogs did have some good games at the stripe down the stretch: 12-of-14 against Auburn, 20-of-24 against LSU, and 16-of-20 against Georgia in Atlanta. Then, against Oregon they shot just 67%. At least with 36 attempts State got plenty of live practice.
GOAL TENDING? Though, it might serve State—and Sunday's other three participants for that matter—to spend more time taking the range of the goal at the lower-seed's end of the floor. Friday night, Oregon was 7-of-17 shooting at that goal in the first half but 2-of-21 in the second. For their part the Dogs were 0-of-10 in the first half, then after changing ends went 4-of-7.
Similar, if not as radical, results from other games were alleged. So the notion is that one goal is just more favorable for outside shooters than the other; though in State's game the higher-seed's end goal did see several layups and short jumpers roll off, interestingly. Stansbury of course didn't know the numbers, but told of the trend he had a response.
"We need to play on that one end it goes in better. See if you can arrange that tomorrow. And after you ask that I promise I won't think about that again."
The coach won't have to. His team will definitely be thinking about getting more long shots to drop the right way though, regardless of which goal they are aiming at. Stewart said State can't wait until the second half to show perimeter punch this time out, especially if it can shake Memphis' standard man defensive approach. "I think it's going to be real important for us, the more threes we hit the more they have to guard us and not sink in and double-down on Charles and Jarvis."
DANCING, ROUND DEUX: The Bulldogs were frustrated at missing the 2007 NCAAs, after winning the SEC West co-championship and 18 regular-season games (the same total victories that this year earned bid for, say, Oregon and Kentucky). They were able to take that perceived shun and turn it into four more March wins and a trip to the semifinals of the NIT, where only a last-tick trey by West Virginia kept the Dogs out of the title game.
In retrospect, that might have been the springboard to this year's successes. "Obviously the NIT is nothing compared to the NCAA," Hansbrough said. "But it is post-season play so we're used to it now."
Speaking of ‘used to it', the Bulldogs have a NCAA game under their collective belts in their Friday win over Oregon. So the ‘new' ought to be gone as State prepares for a second contest. Yes, Hansbrough said, the initial experience lived up to anticipation. "This is what we work towards all year," said, though agreeing there was the near-inevitable initial nerves. "We came in here and maybe the first couple of minutes we were kind of jittery because we'd never been here. In the second half we came out and put them away."
And whatever happens tomorrow, the 2009 Bulldogs have gotten a jump on the next campaign. Because in the popular parlance, they have Been There at last and know how to get back into the dance.
"Definitely," said Hansbrough. "Obviously you're a lot better for the experience you have, for going somewhere and knowing what it's like. Coach is always talking about experience being a key part of things and it is. It really is."
AND, LAST DANCE: Of course for senior Rhodes this is his last NCAA experience, to go with his two games as a 2005 freshman backup. In that respect it is also Rhodes' last chance to strengthen his case with NBA scouts for this summer's draft, or at least the free-agency option. Rhodes entered, then withdrew from draft consideration last summer; now it's all-or-nothing for the upperclassman.
Certainly another performance on the order of his career-high 34 points, and 10-of-12 shooting against Oregon ought to improve his senior stock. And the Bulldog ‘Beast' has roared down this season-stretch, averaging over 20 points in the last 15 games. His tourney-game exploits, with 71 points on 26-of-46 shooting, shows how Rhodes has become the big-game player State always expected.
It's come with expanding his offensive repertoire, really. "It was like I was one-dimensional my first couple of seasons," Rhodes said. "My sophomore season I was more of a banger, my junior season I started working on my jumper and it started falling and defenses had to guard me different ways. So I made sure I worked on it this past summer."
Now comes what shapes up as the biggest contest of his college career. Yet Rhodes said he's not playing for dollars tomorrow. "Not at all. Every game I've got to play my hardest, I can blink one time and be back in Starkville." And, planning his next career step. Yet today Rhodes said he's seeing, or forseeing, good things right ahead as he has been dreaming of playing Memphis. Literally. So, what does the dream do, Charles?
"The dream is fine. I can't tell you abut the rest of it, I can tell you the first half. That's about it. It's going to be real nice. I'm ready for it!"