Dogs Putting Road Lessons To Work This Week

It's one thing for coaches to point out areas of concern. It's another for players to see what happens when those same areas add up to the first setbacks of a season. Or as Coach Rick Stansbury put it, "The things we kind of anticipated, they (his players) found out. There's such a small margin for error on the road, you can't leave too many plays on the court."

Mississippi State's first road experience of the 2008-09 season did see the Bulldogs leaving plays on the court, thus coming home with a couple of defeats in the Legends Classic tournament. The Dogs fell 63-52 to Washington State in the semifinals and dropped a 77-73 consolation round decision to Texas Tech.

Now back at home Stansbury is taking the lessons learned in New Jersey and applying them for use in upcoming contests. The schedule resumes Saturday with a visit from Alabama State and a noon gametime in Humphrey Coliseum. But before giving his 5-2 team any ideas about the opposition, Stansbury is making sure they take a better look at themselves during this week's practicing opportunities scattered around final fall semester exams.

"We basically haven't practiced in two-and-half weeks. Everything has been game preparation, next game, travel. So this practice time will be good for us, in particular since we got some things pointed out to us that we (the coaches) knew that now I think they understand."

Sophomore forward Kodi Augustus has a pretty clear idea of what his coaches will harp on this week. In fact he took his own lessons from the losses. "We learned we've got to be more patient. We've got to grow up. We played real good competition and we have to be more patient, and solid on defense. And don't leave any plays on the floor."

Objectively Stansbury was more encouraged than bothered by how the first true tests of this season played out. His team began the year thumping four easy foes at home, and the initial road test at St. Bonaventure turned out well with a 76-71 victory. Washington State and Texas Tech were a whole ‘nuther league though in all sorts of aspects.

"The physicalness and toughness was more than we were ready for, with both of those teams," Stansbury said. Particularly for a State squad led by a couple of junior only now taking on leadership roles, and with lone senior Brian Johnson still sidelined. "It was a learning experience for everybody. But doing it better and doing it exactly right every trip is the difference between winning and losing."

"It wasn't about effort in any game so far. That doesn't mean I'm pleased with our toughness. But we've gotten better in some areas of defending and rebounding."

Not that the Bulldogs weren't effective in the areas already, to some extent. Even after the road trip where opponents scored more, State is limiting foes to 34% accuracy overall and 31% at the arc. And the Dogs have an eight-board overall edge in rebound average. Good…just not good enough in the tougher games Stansbury said, pointing in particular to State's problems rebounding their own misses to set up easy second-chance baskets.

"It's not just defensive toughness, it's offensive toughness." This extends to the first offensive shot, too. By most measures 46% accuracy is acceptable early in a season for a squad with three new starters and an entirely different rotation from last season. But through seven contests Stansbury, as well as opponents, has noted a willingness by State to settle too quickly for jumpshots and not work quite long and hard enough to work center Jarvis Varnado open inside. The junior is taking less than seven shots per-game, but makes 57% of his attempts. And by this point Varnado should have taken more than just 30 free throws (19 made).

"We've got to get the ball inside better," Stansbury said. "Good things happen when you get the ball in that pain on the pass or the dribble." Varnado controlled the St. Bonaventure win with 19 points and is averaging 10.4 for the season to-date. Augustus, starting at the big forward position, is a 54% shooter getting almost nine points-per.

"I like starting," Augustus said. "I play more, get more experience. It's cool. I learned I've got to play harder with every possession. But I feel myself getting better."

Augustus is starting the four-spot in place of Brian Johnson, who hasn't played since exhibition season. Stansbury had hoped to have the bigger body available by this weekend, helping free Varnado more in the paint with his size and experience. "We worked him yesterday individually and he had a hard time being full-speed. We'll see how he progresses, if you had to ask me now it's more on the doubtful side."

Guard Jacquiese Holcombe is even more unlikely now, not just for the week but the whole season. The rod inserted in his lower leg and retaining screws have hampered him all fall and Stansbury believes too much time has been lost. "When you're playing so many games there's no catch up time." Asked if Holcombe, who played in the four home games, will redshirt, "We'll see."

Alabama State is playing at Nebraska before coming to Starkville, so MSU still has time to gather more information on the next opponent. And, for the staff to remind players of the good, the bad, and the unproductive over last week's three contests. "I don't know if anything is broke, just things we need to do better as a team," Stansbury said.

For that matter the Bulldogs got better from one loss to the next, as against Tech the coach noted superior rebounding, respectable shooting defense, "and only eleven turnovers." That has been a sore point, with 129 lost possessions to 104 in a part of the year where SEC teams are supposed to dominate that stat. It's part of having a new point guard, freshman Dee Bost, running the show while Stewart and soph Ravern Johnson develop backcourt chemistry. There's also the simple question of who is supposed to take over in the crunch, something for three years Jamont Gordon took for granted.

"You've got to be able to get the ball where you want to and be tough enough to get the shot you want to. I thought all of that was better against Texas Tech."

A surprise strength early in the season has been State's ability to score unguarded, at the foul line. The Bulldogs have made 118 free pitches so far, compared to 138 attempts for the other teams. Four regulars are shooting 80% or better there, and none named Stewart who is an uncharacteristic 59% at the stripe. Yet free throwing let the Dogs down in the Tech game when they opened 2-of-10 and were 17-of-31 overall. Those were some of the ‘plays' Stansbury said his team left on the court.

"The first game he was mad because they kind of beat us in a lot of stats, a lot of areas," Augustus reported. "The second game we competed better and he was alright with our effort, just kind of ‘get tougher'." Which the Dogs are doing this week, around the demands of finals week. But that's easier than spending a whole holiday week on the road, Augustus said. "We're just getting back in the groove." And a trip back north—Augustus spent a year in a Maine prep school—reminded him why living in the South is better. "But dealing with New York City was cool!"

Stansbury wasn't entirely cool with the final scores. "But I took a lot of positives from the games. None of us like losing but I see a lot of progress, and a lot of areas we need to get better in. And we will now."

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