Stansbury's mindset is understandable from one aspect. His Bulldogs have been at their season-best since the calendar turned over to 2009, winning six of seven games and building a 14-6 overall record. More to the point, a 4-1 SEC mark that has State sitting atop the Western Division by a half-game over Louisiana State. The Tigers (3-1) might question that status since they defeated the Dogs last week in Baton Rouge. What no one debates is that less than a month into the conference campaign the West is already an obvious two-hoss race between these State rivals and already folk are looking ahead to the February 11 rematch in Humphrey Coliseum.
But between now and then there are three other SEC contests on State's slate, starting (or not starting again until) this Saturday noon when the Dogs host Ole Miss (12:00, Raycom) at The Hump. And as Stansbury adds, "It's a long way to the finish line" in overall season terms. Still the coach likes the situation, and has even found a positive by-product from last Wednesday's loss at LSU. As in, the way State came back strong to win at Georgia three days later.
"We got hit in the mouth at LSU for a bad four-minute stretch, but our kids found a way to respond. And when you respond with a road victory it shows your team is making progress."
It's that show of progress which has Stansbury wanting to keep the club playing, building on the improved abilities and confidence and now even depth that is showing. Why stop now that things are going good? "But we understand the mental part of the game and sometimes it's not bad, too, to give them a little mental rest. On a young team in particular, it takes a toll." So the Dogs will have just about the same number of working days this week, with the work altered somewhat. Such as today; instead of Tuesday game-planning, State can focus on their own game-playing and make—or at least test—some various tweaks. Such as…?
"Well I'm not going to say exactly!," Stansbury said. "But we'll keep trying to get better. We'll use this week to get better as a team."
That could be bad news for the rest of the West, as well as Eastern foes coming up on the February slate. Because there are things the Bulldogs already do well. Most obviously, perimeter scoring. Twenty games into the schedule and State is knocking down just under 46% of all shots and 37.4% of three-point attempts. That rate splits the difference between the second- and third-best seasons ever at the arc for a MSU squad. Though, this team is actually averaging fewer made-treys than the 2007 Dogs did. But it isn't the quantity as much as the quality of the marksmanship that matters to the coach. And as he notes, the NCAA's move of the three-point line back a bit this winter hasn't been a factor for State shooters.
Of course any lineup that opens with four guard-types on the floor, and brings another shooter off the bench, is going to rely heavily on perimeter prowess. Fortunately all five of these Dogs are able and accurate at the arc, led by rising soph star Ravern Johnson with his 49 treys made. In fact the skinny wingman is more certain to make at the arc, 48%, than his overall average of 46.6% on all shots. And Georgia found out it didn't pay to lose track of Johnson as he burned those Dogs for five treys and a huge first half of 21 points.
Junior guard Barry Stewart has rounded back into expected form in recent weeks and has contributed 35 longballs to the cause at a 36% accuracy. Soph Phil Turner, the SEC's smallest ‘big' forward, looks streaky outside but actually has been good on 39.6% of all his arc-attempts and an astounding 47.4% in SEC action. Astounding, because Turner often appears out of any control in his shot selecting, such as the 24 (at least) footer he heaved up in the second half at Athens after Georgia had come all the way back from a double-digit deficit.
Stansbury, who openly berated Stewart for a forced corner-try at LSU, is really more philosophical about how the guy plays this game. "Let him jump up and shoot it when he thinks he's got it, that's when he is at his best. The ones he seems to make are the ones he doesn't think about and the ones you least expect him taking!"
Dee Bost's outside shooting hasn't been as sharp as the first weeks of this rookie season, but the point guard has added a dimension to his game by attacking the lane when defenses spread to cover teammates. This, without taking away from the freshman's knack for distributing and controlling play; Bost has 26 SEC assists against just ten turnovers. And it's easy to get assists by delivering the pass to an open shooter able to knock down the jumpshot. All five State starters are averaging double-digit points in SEC play…but none more than center Jarvis Varnado's 13.4.
Which is a critical aspect of this team's success to Stansbury. "We don't have any guy who can dominate a game a certain night, but we have four, five, six guys who are very capable of leading this team in scoring. I think that's what is good about us, we don't have to depend on one or two guys scoring points for us."
At the same time, outside shooting can't obscure the big Dog in the middle's role. Varnado has made his SEC, for that matter NCAA, name with blocking shots; which he does better than anyone in the college game with 97 swats in 20 games. That is ahead of his per-game pace (4.85 to 4.62) last season when Varnado tied the SEC yearly record for blocks, 157. The record might be tough to reach though if foes continue to stay a healthy distance from Varnado's long reach, as he has ‘just' 15 blocks in five SEC games.
Stansbury is more concerned with getting the ball to the center on offense, as he's hit exactly two-thirds of his SEC shots so far. Of course he's only attempted 42, meaning Varnado doesn't shoot quite enough. And at Georgia, the prime halftime adjustment was get points in the paint. "The first half Jarvis didn't get the ball as much. The second half he was 5-of-6 and created some fouls." Besides, every shot Varnado makes forces defenses to sag a bit farther…and leave the perimeter poppers that much more room to set and shoot.
For most of the campaign to-date the Dogs have relied on a eight-man rotation, with guard Riley Benock, forward Romero Osby, and center Elgin Bailey. None is averaging as much as two baskets a SEC game (Osby leads at 3.8 points), but they provide valuable breather minutes for the starters without giving much away at either end. And Benock isn't shy of taking his own outside shots or delivering an assist. Bailey and Osby have settled themselves down and play more the way true backups should, instead of forcing things on offense as they did in November.
The real bench-news though is the health of center Brian Johnson, now back to strength—or close enough—after nagging foot and ankle issues. The team's only senior has played in the last three SEC games, eight or nine minutes each, and taken care of backup business. But Stansbury thinks Johnson is capable of more and wants to get him further involved on offense.
"Brian has a better feel of how to play of any of our big guys. That's what we've missed so much, anticipating him being a starter for us. We made the changes, and we'll have to make the adjustments back with him because there are a lot of things he does that can help." That might seem risky given how well the offense has worked so far, but Stansbury thinks one more big body on the baseline will provide needed options. Or as he said, "it gives you the opportunity to be different" in the second month of SEC season.
This doesn't mean just using Johnson to spell Varnado, either, but to play both as State originally intended. At Georgia, Johnson spent more time as a big forward than in the pivot and Varnado profited by the presence. Johnson also showed some of that ‘feel' in the second half; when Georgia had come back to tie the contest, Johnson literally screened out two UG Dogs long enough for Stewart to get the open look and knock down the momentum-halting trey.
"So we've made another little adjustment from where he was backing up the five," Stansbury said. "He's moving better."
Johnson, as well as more mature play by Bailey and Osby, can solve one of State's glaring concerns. For every three-pointer this small lineup makes, it gives away a rebound. The Dogs have been out-boarded in ten of the last 12 games, including all five SEC matches, and where whipped 44-24 on the glass at LSU. Of course hot Tiger shooting was at least as much a factor in that defeat. Still Stansbury, who is used to fielding teams that lead the SEC in board-work, has had to grit his teeth at times this winter and stick with a small-squad approach.
"I've got to find ways to help the team be successful. Whatever that is, you have to find ways to make it work. Do I like being out-rebounded, absolutely not. I've always said you win championships on the road by defending and rebounding. But this team is put together differently."
What hasn't changed is Mississippi State's ambition and ability to set the tone in the SEC West, regardless of lineup size and scheme. Stansbury certainly likes this routine. But staying on top means being the target, and Saturday presents another different sort of threat to State's status. The Rebels have had well-publicized problems this season, on and off the court, and with three starters out from knee injuries this is nothing like the Ole Miss lineup Stansbury anticipated facing.
"But in turn they've been able to get a very good chemistry, with seven, eight, nine guys that are going to play. They've got a great shooter in (David) Huertas, and they're playing hard. As always we know it will be a tough challenge for us."
The corresponding challenge is keeping the Bulldogs on their title track when things don't go as game-planned. When the long shots aren't falling, when foes are scoring over or around Varnado, when the calls go the wrong way. No Dog has fouled out of a SEC game so far, and MSU has attempted an incredible (in historical terms anyway) 31 more free throws than their five SEC opponents. So much has gone right…so far.
"Can this team win a championship put together the way we are?" Stansbury mused. "We'll see. Ask me 11 games from now. Through five games we've been OK, but we have to do it 11 more games. It's a long way to the finish line. We have a small margin for error, it's very fragile, but it's one at a time."