State Looks To Regain Focus For February Run

Two weeks ago they were on top of the world, or at least of the West. Now the Bulldogs enter February looking to stop a SEC slide and reverse a recent trend that's taken them down a big notch in the Division standings. "Sometimes you need to get knocked in the head, by yourself or the other team, to stay focused," according to guard Phil Turner.

It's hard to imagine a stiffer shot to the skull than what Mississippi State took this past Saturday, losing first a sizable lead and then a rivalry game to Ole Miss that knocked the Dogs out of a tie for first in the Western Division. The setback leaves State 14-7 going into the new month, and 4-2 SEC going on the league road for a Tuesday night tilt at Kentucky (16-6, 5-2 SEC).

Then again, this is exactly the sort of matchup that should help the Bulldogs clear their big-season vision. "The important thing is knowing what we're up against, not worry about what happened in the past," guard Barry Stewart said. "We just have to take focus into the game."

Not that it will be easy putting the immediate past behind. After a strong start to SEC season with three solid wins, State has dropped two of the next three with losses at current loop-leader LSU and then at home against the rival Rebels. Even the win in-between at Georgia was cut far closer than necessary, but what stung most about Saturday's setback was that the Bulldogs A) were coming off an open week and B) led 12-2 and 25-12 early on. That's not something so simply forgotten for this club.

Thus Turner's admonition to squad and self about focus. "Ole Miss was a game we really wanted to win but it slipped. Give credit to Ole Miss, they're a very good team, but I think we beat ourselves. That's what makes it worse of a loss. It was an eye-opener again, like the LSU loss." The one major difference, though, was that State also dropped one in Humphrey Coliseum, and that fact is very much on MSU minds this week.

"It means a lot because we're coming off a home loss," said center Jarvis Varnado. "We have to get another one on the road to make up for it."

Yet balancing this schedule's books means doing something the history books frown on. State has not won in Rupp Arena since 1995, the only Dog victory in that venue for that matter, and can count just four wins in Lexington since the series began in 1921. Only a couple of the current Dogs, Stewart and Varnado, have played in the city arena before, and neither wants younger teammates thinking too much about this particular trip.

"We're up there to win, not to see the arena and other stuff," said Stewart, who scored nine points on three treys as a 2007 freshman when State fell 64-60 at Rupp. Stewart has since enjoyed two wins over Wildcat teams, with an overtime thriller in the '07 SEC Tournament at Atlanta and last year's 69-64 success in Humphrey Coliseum.

That game saw then-soph Varnado write a chapter in MSU annals with the third ‘triple double' ever for a Dog, compiling10 points, 10 blocks, and a dozen rebounds in the winning cause. Though, most of MSU's firepower came from departed guard Jamont Gordon (24 points) and graduated forward Charles Rhodes (12). Turner had one of his better '08 days with 11 points and a trio of treys.

But that was a different Wildcat club, at the time only 7-8 after the loss. This year's edition roared out to a 5-0 SEC start with the best outside/inside combo in the conference. Junior guard Jodie Meeks is pacing the league with his 25.5-per night scoring and has already bombed 83 threes…more than his previous season-and-a-half combined. Stewart has drawn this particular defensive matchup.

"It wasn't like he won the lottery getting that assignment," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "I'd say he (Meeks) is the best two-guard in America right now, and it's not by accident." Because the junior Kat doesn't just shoot long, he drives in for shorter attempts…not necessarily higher-percentage shots either as Meeks is a 44% marksman at the arc. Stewart's first job is simply getting on his man and limiting transition touches, when possible.

"Yeah, we're matched up. It's going to be a great challenge." Especially, said Stewart, because Kentucky does so much to get the ball to Meeks in scoring situations. And the Bulldog is giving away at least thirty pounds to his off-guard counterpart. More bothersome is that this defensive burden of chasing the other team's hottest shot around the floor and through a steady series of screeners just takes a toll on Stewart's own offensive aspects. "I get hit about every play," he said.

"No excuses, but running around wears you down a little bit. I think I'm conditioned well enough I can finish games." At the same time Stansbury knows he will have to spell his junior starter at least some minutes, meaning soph Riley Benock or rookie Twaney Beckham will get their turns chasing the UK gunner.

Closer to the goal, Varnado has his own obstacles. Plural, because Kentucky has the top frontcourt tandem in this league with Perry Stevenson and Patrick Patterson. The duo has 95 blocked shots between them, or three less than Varnado's SEC-best 98.

"It's going to be a real good challenge," said Varnado. "But I'm up for the test." He proved that last winter when Varnado harassed Patterson into 4-of-11 shooting with 10 points and just three rebounds. Off the bench Stevenson had four points, and seven boards. Varnado said it was nothing special about last year's defensive approach to Patterson; "It was just staying behind him, I felt he couldn't shoot over me and it worked." But then Varnado knows the now-soph center is a more matured opponent, netting almost 19 points-per and hitting the boards often and well.

And, blocking shots. This isn't something Stansbury is overly concerned about, though. Not out of disrespect for Wildcat capabilities, but simply from the way State plays this year. "I don't think they can block those threes we throw up!" the coach said. Besides, the Bulldogs practice against Varnado every afternoon and have learned a few tips about keeping shots out of his reach. "And we don't drive a lot," added Stansbury.

No, the MSU gameplan has four guards swirling around lone post Varnado and throwing up three-pointers. And Stansbury has no intention of changing, at least not at first. "We're going to do what we've done," he said, before adding "I hope we have an opportunity to play big, know what I mean?" A reference to the one-game suspension served by backup posts Elgin Bailey and Brian Johnson for the Ole Miss game for Friday night curfew violations. Their absence showed in a gassed Varnado during the second half, as the starter had to put in 33 tough minutes.

"They served their punishment, move on with it," Stansbury said. "Unfortunately a lot of people had to suffer with the decisions they made. I'll live with the decision and move on. And that takes nothing away from Ole Miss. But it's obvious Jarvis got wore-out."

State has another obvious reason to want to get bigger, as the Bulldogs have been beaten on the backboards in 10 of the last 12 games. And in their two league losses the rebound difference told. This is not an encouraging sign for Tuesday, as the Wildcats are brilliant on the boards with a 8-rebound positive margin. There isn't a lot Stansbury can do with a four-guard lineup to improve board-work…or is there?

"You don't have to worry about rebounds if Meeks is shooting 48%," he said. "Or if Patterson is shooting 60-plus percent. If those guys aren't slowed down we don't have to worry about rebounds. We have to limit first-shot opportunities as best we can, then hope those other guys don't have career games. And see if we can rebound it."

Turner agrees that while State fans are obsessed with recent hot-and-cold swings in shooting, it's the other end where the Bulldogs have been coming up short. Most of all against Ole Miss. "In my opinion it was moreso our defense. As you know we're a three-point shooting team. If we could have played better defense we still could have won, we let a lot of stuff go in the second half we shouldn't have." Which means the key this time is just not giving up open looks and easy shots as often as practical. "We don't have to get a steal or a blocked shot every time, we just make them have a harder time shooting. It's just getting stops."

Which is something both Ole Miss and South Carolina did, or at least did often enough, last week to hand Kentucky a couple of losses. Stansbury saw other things, such as how the Rebels got balls to fall while the visiting Wildcats were off their outside game. And Saturday it was South Carolina's Devan Downey who shot up the Wildcats and even when everybody in the barn knew who would take the game-winning try still made it pay off.

What ideas the Bulldogs can borrow from last week's UK losses is speculative, and Stansbury doesn't foresee any radical changes in approach. " We're either Jarvis at the hole or four guys shooting threes," he said. And, he hopes, playing good enough defense to avoid being overpowered by "the most physical team, biggest team, the best rebounding team" in the league. For their part State players just want to regain that early SEC-season focus that worked so well against, admittedly, lesser competition.

"We're just worrying about the things we can control," said point guard Dee Bost. "Playing hard and winning."

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