A game that has implications not just on the Division, but for the league as a whole even if this is just the second week of SEC season. Besides, says guard Barry Stewart, if their head coach is already speaking openly—in the locker room anyway—about titles, why shouldn't the Bulldogs be thinking big?
"It's not too early to talk about what you want to do," the junior veteran of two Western loop title teams said. "That's the ultimate goal, to win the West and really to win it all. But right now we're just going to take one game at a time."
This one game is a matchup that, if network programmers had to do it over again, would be made-for-TV. Wednesday evening pits the hottest team in the Division, as well as one tied for the overall league lead, against the West's top turnaround-story. Under direction of new Coach Trent Johnson, hired from Stanford to replace longtime boss John Brady, the Tigers have put some old pieces in better places and are bringing some of noise back to the Maravich Assembly Center. LSU is a perfect 13-0 on the home floor so far this season, and if none of the pre-SEC victories stands out a solid thumping of South Carolina last week should have their league peers now on notice.
"Trent has done a great job coming in and getting the guys to buy into what he's trying to accomplish," said State assistant coach Robert Kirby, who is running Monday's practice while other staff are out of town scouting future prospects. "They're playing more as a unit, and that's what you get when you have five seniors in the top group. They're doing an outstanding job running their offense and playing team basketball."
That was clearly the case Saturday as the Tigers roared out to a 12-0 start in routing Ole Miss at Oxford. Only a SEC season-opening loss at Alabama mars the conference mark, and LSU can neutralize that road loss with a key home victory this week. The Bulldogs weren't to start serious study of the Tigers until Tuesday's practice, as they will lift weights and shoot today, but Stewart has an idea what to expect already.
"I know they're a veteran team, they've got some good size on them and some good shooters." ‘Veteran' is an understatement as LSU will start four upperclassmen…a couple who it seems have been wearing purple and gold since Dale Brown was the sideline. Two seniors, big guard Marcus Thornton and power forward Tasmin Mitchell, are averaging 17 and 15 points respectively, and center Chris Johnson is controlling the middle. And the lone underclassman starter, soph guard Bo Spencer, is the most-improved player on the team and maybe in the West.
The Bulldogs aren't quite so old as this Tiger lineup, but they do have positive experience in terms of the rivalry as State has a four-game win streak going against LSU. For that matter MSU teams have won 23 of the last 32 meetings with Tiger squads, including nine of the last 15 trips to Baton Rouge. These pups have no memory of how the PMAC was once among the most aggressive, and entertaining, venues in the land. Yet it appears the fans are coming back at last, so "It's going to be a test for us going into a hostile environment like that," Stewart said.
Fortunately the Bulldogs passed their own first road-trip test of this SEC season, taking care of Arkansas with surprising 70-56 ease. That game showed that State's pre-conference show of shooting prowess wasn't a fluke, that the four-guard lineup Stansbury has settled on can compete and succeed against league foes. In their five-win streak the Dogs have thrown in 54 three-point goals and hit 47% from the arc. And MSU need not rely on just a couple of marksmen; all four guard-type starters as well as backups can drop the longball any time, any situation.
"That makes us a dangerous team, whenever you have more than one or two guys the can score," Stewart said. He pointed out that Vanderbilt would often rush an extra defender at him in Saturday's home game, or another likely gunner. All this did was leave two other teammates open to catch and shoot. In this case it was soph Ravern Johnson (four treys) or soph Phil Turner (two) who did the damage at long distance.
Even more encouragingly, so far State has been able to adapt to stretches when the threes weren't falling; to keep playing sound defense and manufacture shorter two-point baskets as needed. Best of all, nobody has gotten greedy about his place in the big picture. Here Stewart gives credit to both the individual attitudes as well as how Stansbury has given this group more room and less rein to do what they can do best.
"It's a lot more fun. There's still some structure there, cutting and screening and moving, but it's more free-styling. And we're just looking for each other." Without, he adds, getting too involved in the fun part of the floor. Defense is still a stress, too, though this is also easier given what happens on the offensive end as well. "Winning helps a lot of that," Stewart said, "so I think everybody is taking care of more details."
The small squad approach does come with the trade-off in rebounding, as State has been edged on the boards seven of the last nine games. Though, Vanderbilt was the first to have a decisive edge, 37 to 28, and it didn't keep the Dogs from winning. But LSU might be another matter, with more athletic big cats in the frontcourt as well as old-hand guards seasoned by years of SEC scrapping. They'll present the best physical challenge center Jarvis Vanado has seen for several weeks, and likely give backups like Elgin Bailey and Romero Osby a true test of SEC bump-and-bang.
But Stewart says these front-court kids are getting up to league speed, especially since they've learned to pace themselves on offense and not force the first available shot as they did in November and December. "A lot of times guys might press about scoring so much," Stewart said. "I think they've probably settled into roles, knowing if they just go out and play scoring will come to them."
Keeping from over-excitement might be a challenge for Bailey, who prepped in Baton Rouge as well as New Orleans and knows almost every single starter and a couple of backups on LSU's roster from high school and summer ball. Besides, "All my family is going to be there, and my teachers and friends from high school. I'm very excited about getting to play against some old teammates, I played with all of them!"
State might have another big body available Wednesday, as lone senior Brian Johnson is getting back closer to health. Kirby reminded that it is always day-to-day with the center, but "the last 9-10 days it's been very good, he's as healthy as he's been here. The problem we have as a coaching staff is he's healthy, but our chemistry as a team is very good. You can't just dislodge them because he's healthy. It's a tough position but at the same time you like Brian's attitude about everything."
Certainly the Bulldogs go on the road this week (Saturday at Georgia, 5:00 ESPN2) with as good an attitude as possible. "The Arkansas win was big," Bost said. "It was a great environment to play in and if we can play there and win then we can play anywhere on the road." Besides, scoring another road win…or better, two…would really put Mississippi State in a commanding position for the remainder of this conference campaign. Even at such an early stage.
"We want to stay at the top, so we've got our mindset going into this game to win," Bost said. "We just want to get at the top of the West and if it all plays out be at the top of the whole SEC."