Dogs Continue Prep For SEC/Big East Meet

He isn't physically present, but Jarvis Varnado insists he still hears Coach Rick Stansbury's voice during practice. "All the time," the Bulldog center claims. "He's saying ‘rebound'!" Meanwhile Stansbury's aides hear the boss speaking more directly, over the office phone. "I just finished a conversation with him," Coach Robert Kirby reported. "He's trying to get Talvis to bring him some video."

So even while the top Dog is away another day, being treated for a viral infection in Northeast Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, his Mississippi State team is working just as if Stansbury was present in Humphrey Coliseum. Because the Bulldogs (7-3) have a big contest directly ahead, taking on Cincinnati this Thursday evening in US Bank Arena as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge (5:30, ESPN2).

"This is a real important game, this can determine whether you go to the tournament or not," Varnado said. "So we have to come out focused and ready to play." The tournament referred to being the NCAAs of course, as such December matchups matter that much more come March selections.

So important is this particular trip that the State staff is almost counting on Stansbury, who checked himself into the local hospital Sunday evening before being taken to Tupelo, making his way to Cincinnati. Even if he misses the 4:30 departure time Wedenesday.

"We're going to prepare as if he's not going to be there," said Kirby, temporarily in charge of the team. "But we expect him to be there. You know, I've been around him 24 years and I think he'll get there if he has to drive! He sounded very good over the phone, when we hung up I was like, he sounds good. It's just a matter of the virus running its course with treatment."

The afternoon office-call was about today's afternoon practice and aspects of both preparing for the Bearcats and continuing to develop these Dogs. Which is why aide Talvis Franklin was likely to hit the road soon with plenty of scouting and practice material for Stansbury to review himself.

"Hopefully he'll get to come but we want him to get better first," guard Barry Stewart said.

Stewart is involved with a recovery process of his own, having injured the left wrist in a couple of hard collisions and falls in Saturday's victory over South Alabama. Concerns about a fracture were allayed by Sunday's exam, but the junior two-guard was wearing a brace when he arrived at The Hump.

"It's still day to day. Hopefully it will get better. It's with my opposite hand but it hurts just catching the ball and on the dribble." Stewart said he hasn't taken a shot at all since Saturday, and his only exertions have been some running to keep condition. Otherwise, it's been rounds of icing and stimulation of the wrist in the training room.

"He won't practice again today," said Kirby. "We're trying to get him as much rest as possible and get him out there tomorrow some time."

With Stewart, who has started every game at off-guard this season, sidelined Kirby and staff are practicing the lineup that played most of Saturday's second half. This means soph Riley Benock has moved in at the two-spot. But there are alternative groupings available, Kirby said.

"We're going to work with a small and big lineup today in practice. Much won't change, we'll stay pretty much the same way. The adjustments we made we'll try to fine-tune them a little bit and keep working from there. We can also put Twany Beckham at the point and slide Dee Bost to the two. So we've got some adjustments we can make, we'll work on that stuff today."

The ‘small' lineup will also feature soph guard Phil Turner, who got his first start of the season in the USA win. He was replacing big forward Kodi Augustus, who had been struggling in the past few starts. The three, or really four guard group—considering how wingman Ravern Johnson works most and best—seemed to put some spark back in State's step for that contest. Certainly the Bulldogs played far more efficiently, and energetically, than in a preceding loss to Charlotte.

Not that things like lineups or matchups were what State's staff liked best about the win. The most positive outcome was how the Bulldogs responded from their worst effort and execution of the season. "After the shellacking we took last Wednesday, with the young group, they did some growing up that night," Kirby said. "They came around and responded in a positive manner." The coach said those positives were reviewed again this morning so players could see what they did well, individually and collectively considering they had just two days to make changes.

Going small in this game might be a gamble, though. Kirby and both players interviewed noted the physical prowess Cincinnati brings to the court. "They're a good-sized team," said Stewart. Coach Kirby agreed about the big Bearcats, but he's just as—if not more—concerned about a smaller opponent. "They have a very, very good point guard that acts as a two; he's a point until he passes and then he's a two-guard. He's probably one of if not the best guards we've faced all year."

Which is likely why Varnado keeps hearing his head coach's voice stressing rebounding, something State has had a few issues with this season. Stansbury has been particularly worried about a lack of offensive boards and second-chance baskets. Yet he thought it worth the risk of giving away size to get a more aggressive squad on the court the last game, and to their credit backcourt Bulldogs like Turner and Johnson aren't scared to go into traffic after caroms.

At the same time backup center Elgin Bailey is getting more minutes in rotation with Varnado, not just to keep the starter fresh but to bring more bulk to the baseline. And State still hopes to seen senior Brian Johnson back on the court soon, as he comes off ankle problems that limit his side-to-side movement.

Given how important this particular game is, the absence of the head coach would seem very ill-timed. Yet everyone involved has been pleased with the work State has gotten done while Stansbury frets from his hospital room. Having an old Dog like Kirby, a veteran aide of two State staffs, has certainly eased the situation. "I think he's the man for the job here," said Stewart, "he'll step up to the challenge."

"We listen to all the coaches," Varnado said. "Everybody is on the same page, hoping to get Coach back for the game but we're listing to Kirb and all the coaches."

"I technically don't call myself a head coach!" Kirby said. "We have a great group of guys and they came out yesterday and practiced very hard, did an outstanding job of leading in the drills. So it really wasn't much of an adjustment. I just have to talk a little more than I normally do, because when Coach starts talking everyone has to be quiet!"

Of course the goal is for Mississippi State to make some noise on the court Thursday, for a national audience and on behalf of the entire SEC. "It's going to be real interesting," Varnado said of this made-for-TV-match. "It's going to be fun."

Hopefully for everyone, including a head coach who is doubtless giving the hospital staff fits and burning up the cel-phone minutes. Kirby knows what his first task is upon leaving the court today.

"If I don't call him he'll call me. He said call me as soon as practice is over. He'll be sitting on pins and needles trying to get those videos up there as fast as possible."

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