Bulldogs Prepare For Week's Key Home Games

While everyone else in Bulldog Country focuses all attentions on the football coach search, roundball work resumed Monday afternoon in Humphrey Coliseum as Mississippi State prepares for a couple of games this week. And not the sort of home-court, non-conference contests usually seen this time of season either.

The week's scheduled guests, Charlotte and South Alabama, make for the sort of mid-December matchups that could have an impact on everyone and everything come mid-March and tournament selection time. That's a point Coach Rick Stansbury is making to his ball club, particularly coming off both final fall semester exams along with a lackluster weekend win.

"So we'll have to play much better than we played Saturday night," Stansbury said prior to Monday's 5:30 practice. "They know it wasn't their best effort, and understand that effort gets you beat against Charlotte."

Stansbury will use the example of State's unnecessarily close 76-67 Saturday win over Alabama State as incentive during these two days of practicing for the Wednesday evening (6:00) matchup with Charlotte. At the same time he will remind the Bulldogs not to take the 49ers' 2-6 worksheet too lightly either. "Forget their record," he said. "They've lost at home to Clemson by one and they had the game won. They lost three on the road in that California tournament, one of them in overtime." Nor will veteran Dogs need reminding how potent a foe South Alabama (7:00 Saturday) can be, after the Jaguars beat State in Mobile a year ago and advanced to the NCAAs."

It isn't as if Mississippi State has reason nor room for overconfidence anyway. The Bulldogs are 6-2, have beaten everyone they were supposed to and played competitively in neutral-court losses to favored Washington State and Texas Tech. Now State takes on clubs that are closer to equals; the sort of games that best indicate the progress so far and the potential yet to come.

Even the Bulldogs admitted disappointment in their most recent outing. After dominating the opening ‘quarter' of play State eased up and let the Hornets back into the game…even to take one-point leads either side of halftime.

"From that point on it wasn't as good as it has to be," Stansbury said today. "As a coach you understand you have those moments, but you don't accept them."

The coach was clear that his annoyance did not involve the effort his players put forth last Saturday or for that matter in any game to-date. "Effort hasn't been our problem," he stressed. "That's been there." The challenge has been focusing and directing those individual efforts into team execution.

"The things that we have to continue to get better at, is take toughness and utilize it better by defending and getting rebounds." While State has put up steady statistics on the backboards, win or lose, there has been a tendency to let a couple caroms too many escape the grasp. Not many, but enough to annoy the coach and let opponents off the hook at times.

The same is true defensively. Again, the overall numbers for shooting and scoring defense look just fine. It's what the stat sheet can't show, the should-have-stops, that stand out to Stansbury. Which means the coach is walking a fine practice line, of critiquing to improve what his squad has shown itself capable of already and bringing it up to SEC-standard. He noted how, after a stern halftime talk, the Dogs dominated the glass at each end the last period against Alabama State, and that was good.

"But you have to be consistent because the next level of competition you can't have those bad halves, or even bad possessions as we've found out already." Nor is Stansbury allowing the team's relative youth to excuse bad halves and inconsistent execution. "I understand that brings on a lot of it, but they're not going to have that as a crutch."

At the same time the handful of older Dogs are being asked to set a stronger tone. Particularly C Jarvis Varnado and 2G Barry Stewart. Stansbury says both the junior classmates have done well leading by example on the court. Yet their low-key styles have something of a downside, too.

Still, "Where else does our leadership come from? It's got to come from them. Their personalities are really not guys who can grab somebody by shirt collar and get them going, but they have to get better in that situation. It's a new role for both of them."

Varnado certainly doesn't lack for physical presence in the post, as far as blocking shots—he continues to set the league pace there and already holds the program career record. And the still-skinny pivot looked more offensively aggressive last Saturday. He had to be, as ASU's 7-1, 265-pound center came right at Varnado for ten first-half points and some impressive blocks. Stansbury let his postman play one-on-one for the opening period, "to see if Jarvis could guard him." In the second half State did more doubling-up, but not a lot.

And Varnado responded to the challenge with a strong stretch, taking control in the paint en route to a career-best 22 points along with nine rebounds and eight swats. "Give him credit, I thought he stepped it up," Stansbury said. Varnado also worked for different sorts of shots on either side of the rim, including a baby-hook that was unblockable. Stansbury wants the big Dog taking, and making, more shots of all sorts, but adds that this is a team-effort.

"I don't think we've seen what he can do offensively, because we haven't gotten it to him enough. And he doesn't help us get it to him enough, he doesn't demand it physically and verbally. And we probably miss him some. I have confidence in him scoring that ball. The more it goes in there the better we'll be, pass or dribble."

Varnado is getting relief from soph Elgin Bailey, who put in some good minutes against the Hornets and showed some nice baseline moves. Bailey is getting the turns that were to go to Brian Johnson, who has yet to play this season with ankle and foot issues. Stansbury had hoped to play his lone senior Saturday but "he wasn't able to go, and we let him rest yesterday." Johnson, who could also start at big forward, has been out almost a month now and has lost a lot of conditioning. "We'll know more today," Stansbury said of Johnson's prospects for this week.

In that absence Kodi Augustus has started at forward, with inconsistent results. At times the soph has played like the outside/inside threat he has the skills to be. And at times he has gotten lost on each end of the floor. The ASU game, with matchups he ought to have overpowered, was one of "those moments" to Stansbury. "He totally had a lapse mentally in what he was doing," the coach said, pointing to one first-half rebound and none in the last period. "He had shown improvement in those areas. But you can't slip back."

Rookie point guard Dee Bost began the year putting up points himself. His shooting and scoring have eased off as expected, as Bost works more off and with teammates on the court at the time. Stansbury likes what his freshman quarterback is doing running the offense. "He's doing OK. I think the big challenge we have for him, he's got to find ways to keep those other point guards out of that lane. They've got in there too consistently. It's not about effort, it's about understanding how to do it a little bit better."

Meanwhile Stansbury has adjusted his substitution tendencies somewhat. Instead of replacing all five folk, starters or backups, at one time the coach is doing more individual subbing. Though, around the second scheduled timeout he still will send in three, maybe four, backups. It's after the half that Stansbury goes with specific changes.

The bench has been OK for us. We've got to get more consistency with guys coming off the bench, adding-to and not taking-away. They've had good moments for us, but there's been moments they've been bad for us."

Stansbury got some bad/good news over the weekend, as backup guard Phil Turner was in an automobile/deer accident. The coach confirmed that Turner was alright.

Stansbury also told media that a special ticket would be available for both this week's games, with the semester ended and students leaving. The Ticket Office and Bulldog Club were working on the details Monday afternoon.


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