Stansbury Prepping Dogs For Saturday Debut

At some point the next day or two his staff will turn serious attention toward the opening-day opponent, as usual. Just don't ask Coach Rick Stansbury to provide any in-depth scouting report on Centenary at the moment. "It's easier to talk about my team."

And the Bulldogs occupy their head coach's complete focus for now as Mississippi State prepares to tip off the 2009 season this Saturday. Game time has been set for 2:00 with state-wide radio broadcast by Jim Ellis.

Stansbury sees good reason to put all his emphasis on his own team all week if needed, based on how the Bulldogs performed—or in a few situations and cases, didn't—in their two exhibition games. Oh, the coach was glad to come away with a couple of victories that might not count on the record but did give the Dogs chances to prepare properly for the real thing. Yet his squad cut the second contest a lot closer than needed, needing to storm back in the final six minutes to edge Oklahoma City 67-65. Just like most pre-season games or scrimmages, Stansbury finds it easier to remember the problems than the productions.

Foremost was the somewhat sluggish pace his team played at for almost 30 clock-minutes. "I thought it looked like we were running in quicksand," Stansbury said. Admittedly he had put the Dogs through a grueling week's work leading up to the second exhibition, and Stansbury grudgingly allowed that some players looked tired…not that he wanted any excuses used.

Still, "I haven't had a practice with less energy than that," Stansbury said. "We didn't do some things as well as I'd have liked for us to. And give Oklahoma City some credit, they jumped on us early and took some of the air out of us. They shoved us around, which was good." Very good in terms of reminding the veteran Bulldogs, and showing the younger pups, what life will be like come SEC season. Or for that matter against the tougher non-conference clubs on the November and December schedule.

Particularly, Stansbury noted how wingman Ravern Johnson and center Jarvis Varnado—both by no coincidence not exactly bulky Bulldogs—were muscled around at times. And rookie point guard Dee Bost struggled at times just to keep his footing when legally bumped and banged in the perimeter. This may have been the most valuable outcome of exhibition season, Stansbury said.

"Overall it was a good learning situation and we found a way to dig in and show some grit." Though the coach won't put this team through any more two-a-day sessions, just so they're at fuller-strength going into the season.

But not full-strength because a trio of Dogs are dealing with or coming off of injuries. Fortunately the most serious summer setback, G Barry Stewart's busted ankle, is healed and the junior off-guard has worked himself almost all the way back into season-shape. "I think he's pretty close there," Stansbury said. "I don't see his condition as a major problem."

But a couple of touted rookies are having to play catch-up. Wingman Jacquiese Holcombe has played but a foot injury that required inserting a rod clearly hampered him in the OKC game when he was 1-of-6 shooting in 16 minutes. Doctors are trying this week to solve some irritations apparently caused by one of the screws, which if successful would have Holcombe playing more freely. Freshman guard Twany Beckham's sprained foot is more problematic and makes him day-to-day. "I'd hope we have him some this weekend," Stansbury said, "we need his depth."

In fact the coach is more interested in developing the depth than setting a starting lineup. Of course Stansbury has always downplayed the significance of merely being on the court for the opening tip together anyway. "Look in there late in most games and you'll find out who my starting five are," he reminded. Still the coach has to pick five Dogs for a tipoff team Saturday and as of now he's leaning toward one with the most collective experience available.

That would be Varnado in the middle joined by lone senior Brian Johnson; Stewart and Ravern Johnson working the wings, and Bost on point. B.Johnson has been something of a fall surprise, taking advantage of the graduation of Charles Rhodes to show his own stuff on the baseline. Besides, the coach notes, he is the only scholarship senior and that counts for something.

"He gives you a little bit more experience," Stansbury said. "That doesn't mean he doesn't make mistakes but his experience out there is invaluable right now. He's skilled and a good rebounder, and I really think he can score the ball in that post." In fact Johnson keyed State's comeback against OKC when, after a series of tips and taps went awry, he just grabbed the loose ball and stuffed it to spark a 12-3 surge.

And Stansbury wants to take more advantage of B.Johnson's experience on offense, as well as the improving confidence that Varnado can score on more than putbacks. Younger big bodies Elgin Bailey and Romero Osby have offensive potential as well, if given chances to create. That brings up a pre-season issue Stansbury has noticed.

"The ball is not going nearly enough to the paint on the dribble and on the pass. We have to figure out who can do what best and how it's best to get both those things done, because the ball has to go to the paint one way or another."

It's not that Stansbury minds Stewart and Bost shooting the jumpers, or R.Johnson slashing to the hoop. He simply asks the ball be better-distributed. But this is an aspect of the game where coaching must be complemented by chemistry, and that is something it will take a while for this rebuilt backcourt to develop. For that matter Stansbury notes that the big Dogs are also learning how to play with and off each other. Because after years with Rhodes and Jamont Gordon willing and able to assert themselves, it's time for others to step up to the opportunities and challenges.

"I think it's just everybody is in the same boat a little bit figuring out what the strengths and weaknesses are," said Stansbury. "Who works best and how they all work best together. As players and as coaches we're still trying to figure that out."

There isn't much figuring-out time left, though. Because when this schedule begins the Bulldogs are playing, and playing, and playing some more. There are no less than four games in the first eight days, and seven games from November 15-29 in all. Yes, the coaching staff put this slate together, so they knew exactly what they were setting up for this squad.

"And that will be the biggest challenge for this team now," Stansbury said. "There's so many things we're trying to learn, trying to teach, all of a sudden teaching time is less and now it becomes a lot of preparation playing games. And that will be a mental challenge for us, can we mentally get up every game the way you have to. Because a lot of teams coming in here this will be their big game of the year, playing a SEC team."

But these Dogs won't be an easy target for any hungry minor-league opponent. Stansbury does anticipate growing pains along the way but he equally expects growth, based on the efforts shown in practices and exhibitions. Adding the incentive of playing for-real should only increase the pace.

"I love our work ethic and attitude, those things have been very positive. The thing I have to keep in mind is it's different than it has been going into the first game. I can't say we're behind, it's just a lot of things we have to get better at. There are a lot of things coming at us in a hurry here. And it's finding that fine line, that we don't do too much they can't handle it mentally but do enough to be able to adjust and attack."

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