Thus Stansbury's emphasis on being properly grounded in the exciting aftermath of a 70-56 triumph at Arkansas. "Our challenge now is put that behind us and understand the next game is the most important game of the year. And to get young guys to stay off the peak and out of the valley."
That might not be so simple, because by any measure the Bulldogs are playing at their to-date peak these mid-season days. After an attention-getting home loss to San Diego that ended the December schedule, Mississippi State has stormed into 2009, and conference competition, with style. The Dogs have routed Houston, Western Kentucky, and now Arkansas by strong margins and in impressive style. Naturally the most recent success has brought the most merited praise, as it was only State's third-ever victory in Walton Arena.
How high were these players flying Saturday night? Turner claimed he was actually looking forward to Monday's practice—surely a first in his college career. But then "After that win I was ready to come in and put in some more work because I really saw how good we can be," Turner explained. "(Coach) let us enjoy our win right then, but he kept telling us you know that's only one; we have to come back and take care of home."
It helps focus most MSU minds that the upcoming home game is with a familiar foe. "Us and Alabama is always going to be a good game," center Jarvis Varnado said. As well as an interesting matchup. Where the last three victims have been built primarily around skill and shooting, the Crimson Tide is a real physical change of pace. "I know they've got a lot of big guys," Varnado said. "But we have to come prepared, ready to play." Which Alabama certainly did on Sunday, knocking off preseason West favorite Alabama 65-59 in Tuscaloosa.
Though not quite as big and physical as recent years, the Tide still has some veteran muscle with 6-6 Alonzo Gee, 6-7 Demetrius Jemison, and 6-10 Yamene Coleman; as well as new bodies such as 6-9 JaMychal Green. And while still not back to his pre-injury form, senior guard Ronald Steele lends the squad much-needed maturity.
By the same token these Bulldogs have done some serious growing of their own the last few weeks, shaking off some December disappointments and getting the season on a much faster track. "We've been playing the same type ball since day-one," soph guard Ravern Johnson insisted. "We just figured out the team roles and everything is clicking together."
Just about everything really is, most notably on the offense. Since committing to a ‘small' lineup the Dogs have found the right mix of scoring from outside and in. Mostly the former, as befits a squad with usually four guard-types on the court at any time. In this three-win run State has lit foes up from the arc, making 36 treys in 74 tries or just under 50%.
"It's obvious we've shot more threes than ever," Stansbury said. "But that's kind of the way this team is put together right now and it's one of the strengths of this team." Especially when longballs keep falling as they have. And while good marksmanship in home-court wins over Houston and WKU could be expected, bombing over Arkansas in the Pigs' own pen showed State's shooting wasn't any fluke.
"When the other guys are knocking down shots it makes it a lot easier on us," said Johnson. "I know Barry (Stewart) and Dee (Bost) are very capable of scoring and it's making it easier on everybody else." Such as…Johnson, who had a from-the-field day making 9-of-10 shots against WKU and setting a program record for arc-accuracy with 6-of-7 that night. Even so he was able to find open areas on the Fayetteville court and keep popping as opponents have yet to give him special defensive attention.
"Not really, they're still going to zone or man and helping-off too much. So I guess teams ain't figured it out yet. I hope they don't!"
For his part Stewart has shaken out of a slump and gotten hot just in time for SEC season himself. He gives part of the credit to assistants Phil Cunningham and Marcus Grant. "They contributed to that, staying after practice and doing shooting drills," Stewart said. At the same time the junior was able to shrug off his shooting struggles to keep taking—and begin making—the long shots this scheme scripts.
And after his own second-month issues point guard Bost is back on-target himself. Last week Stansbury noted that an offensive adjustment took some of the pressure off the freshman to put up mostly long shots and created opportunities to drive for shorter, if tougher, baskets. Bost has thrived since, but in the process his perimeter touch has also returned. And, the rookie said, he's done some mental-relaxation drills before games lately.
"I relieve my mind and take the pressure from me. I'd kinda been feeling it the last month or so, thinking about things too much." Needless to say Bost wasn't thinking about awards at Arkansas either, but today he was announced as the SEC's Freshman of the Week after excellent outings against WKU and the Hogs. "Most importantly we got the win," he said. "That's all that mattered."
The interesting fact is that pre-Arkansas, Stansbury didn't exactly stress scoring. Turner said the other end of the court was the coach's emphasis. "We really didn't do any offensive work the days prior to playing at Arkansas, we did all defensive work. We know defense can bring offense. But if we're knocking down shots that's a plus."
Probably a necessary one since the small lineup can be vulnerable in other aspects. Yet in the past three games State has only been out-boarded by a total of ten, 125 to 115. It certainly helps that Turner plays above his size, as well as the way Stewart, Johnson, even Bost will go chasing after loose caroms. And while MSU's hot outside shooting has definitely pressured opponents, these Dogs haven't exactly been playing just to match baskets.
"Considering being small, we've done a pretty good job defensively," said Stansbury. "Arkansas had 21 points (for the second half) until they hit the last shot with twenty seconds to go. I think we've gotten better there." Still the coach has no illusions about the key to success with this particular lineup and rotation. "There's not a lot of in-betweens. And when you're a three-point shooting team you've got to live and die by some quicker shots. Offensively we've made a couple of little adjustments, we want to push it every time but it's a fine line of pushing it and putting pressure on a defense. We've gotten a little bit better there."
This is why no Dog is concerned about the inevitable evening when the longballs aren't falling. They're willing to win on defense or by any means necessary, Turner said. "We saw how our team played together and well-coached we were, and said it's a real good feeling. Just keep on playing hard, keep on working hard in practice is the first thing. And keep playing together."
The elder Dogs in this group know how that togetherness began to flourish. "I told Jarvis if we get one win and it will turn it around," recalled Stewart. "That Houston game gave us a lot of confidence and from then on it's taken off."
Now that they've taken off will State keep flying high? They could take a bonus lesson from Arkansas in that the Hogs themselves were coming off the league's best non-conference wins this winter, over Oklahoma and Texas. And it didn't mean a thing once SEC season tipped off. Expect Stansbury to use this reminder, this week. As well as his dictum of a 16-game season. "And it's easier said than done," the coach said. "We understand there's always bigger wins in media minds and public opinion and probably your players' minds. But it counts as one win.
"It's a work in progress every day. That's why I say we know how important this win was, but it was just one win. Let's move on and get better because the next one is the biggest game of the year."