Bulldogs Ready For Return Match With Tigers

He knew the query was coming, so Barry Stewart could smile at the implied idea Mississippi State players have talked and thought about anything else this week but Wednesday night's showdown with Louisiana State. "It's come up a little bit," the junior guard offered with low-key irony.

Sure, only a little bit. Just as tomorrow evening's outcome will have some modest impact on the SEC's Western Division chase as well as the overall conference championship. When Mississippi State and LSU collide Wednesday at Humphrey Coliseum, the whole league will be keeping score. Which is why the only Bulldog not talking about the topic, from that at-stake angle, is Coach Rick Stansbury.

"Nope. I don't have to talk about it. The kids understand. If I have to talk about it we're in trouble already. What we need to talk about is just how good LSU is, how they handled us the first time."

His Bulldogs grasp both aspects. They know that this Wednesday's winner will have a leg-up in the second half of the West championship schedule, and stay a solid contender for the SEC crown; and that there is the matter of balancing some books after the Tigers thumped visiting State 81-57 on January 21. In fact if there were no immediate SEC stakes to play for, that payback angle would be sufficient motivation for MSU players anyway.

"As soon as the Arkansas game was over I started thinking about it," said point guard Dee Bost. Which speaks volumes for the upcoming event because Bost had just scored a season-high 25 points with six treys in a dramatic comeback victory over the Razorbacks. Instead of celebrating his big day, the freshman playmaker was looking ahead. "You think about one game at a time," Bost said, "But this is a real important game."

As important as a February matchup can get for State. The Bulldogs are 6-2 after the first half of SEC season; the Tigers 7-1. While a MSU win won't mean a specific lead in the West standings, evening that season-score would eliminate the biggest potential tiebreak issue if March finds the rivals tied. A loss, well, that would put LSU in very strong position for the stretch. And of course players on both squads are keeping up with their East counterparts, all of whom have at least two losses going into the week.

So Stewart could turn serious with further answers. "We're no longer just playing the games, here you compete for championships every time you step on the floor. We know they're #1 in the SEC so its a big game for us and for them, too."

As well as a big challenge for a State team that must prepare for another shot at what Stansbury sees as the best all-around lineup in the league. "They're a team moreso than anyone," he said. "They've got great balance and experience to go with that balance."

Not to mention individual talents. State got to see too much of that from Marcus Thornton, who lit the Dogs up in the second half at Baton Rouge for 31 points. He's now averaging an even 20 markers-per and Stansbury says Thornton is an even tougher matchup than Kentucky's Jodie Meeks. Where the Wildcat guard can be prevented from catching the ball, LSU works harder with curls and screens to get this cat spots and shots. "And he's on a roll offensively," said Stansbury.

But this is no one-man attack by any means. Senior Tasmin Mitchell is having the sort of senior season that would have been projected for the top, to some, prep player in the class of 2005. After trying to make himself a wingman for a couple of years, Mitchell has moved to the frontcourt under new coach Trent Johnson and is thriving with 15.6 points and 6.8 boards.

"Now he's good where he's at, an undersized 4-man who can post you and at the same time step out and play," Stansbury said. Mitchell profits from the tall presence of center Chris Johnson, while Bo Spencer is coming into his own as a quality SEC point guard and still scoring like a two-man. He and Thornton have 87 treys between them, well over half the team's total.

Which points to LSU's sole potential weakness over the long SEC haul, as the Tigers get by with modest use of a thin bench. Yet the approach has carried LSU to the top of the league so far, and this group of veterans knows how to play the whole forty-minute game. "That's a talented five," said Stewart of the starters. Talented enough to knock off the Dogs with an impressive second half on their home court.

Yet things were more competitive early on, and had the iron been kinder to Jarvis Varnado in the first half the first meeting might have played out differently. State attacked the Tigers inside and the center got the shots he wanted; they just didn't drop as usual. "I was rushing a little bit," Varnado said. "And Coach told me to slow down. In the second half I did an OK job. But LSU knows how to play defense, that's won thing they'll do. They'll play defense and rebound the ball. It's going to take a group effort to win this game."

Especially on the backboards where State was whipped by twenty caroms. "Physically they just beat us," said Bost. Coming up short in rebounding is something these Dogs, with their four-guard lineup, have gotten used to and even comfortable with to an extent, but that margin was too painful to bear repeating this time. The good news is that in beating Arkansas, which also used a smaller lineup, State won a battle on the boards for the first time this SEC season. So the trend could be encouraging here.

"We're probably a little different since then," said Stansbury. "We've gained some experience playing small."

Of course State has plenty of '09 experience living large from the three-point line, never more so than last week when they shelled first Kentucky for 14 longballs to tie the program record; then knocked down a new-mark of 16 against Arkansas. Those thirty treys mean State now not only leads the SEC in makes (82 in eight games) but accuracy at 41%. Soph guard Ravern Johnson still sets the pace despite not hitting a long shot Saturday (he'd led the NCAA in outside accuracy going into the game) with 58, while Stewart is coming on strong in February and has 43 threes. Bost has contributed 34 and guard/forward Phil Turner 28.

Living by the trey has been State's best way to play this season, with this roster. Still Stansbury would like to see more effort in more traditional MSU strengths, especially rebounding where the Dogs are -6.8 in SEC-game statistics; worst in the league by far. And that is with Varnado ranking near the top of the conference at nine-plus rebounds. "We have to rebound better," said Stansbury, but adding "we're not going to change what we do." As in, he will stick by the small starting lineup and its proven perimeter prowess.

Which looks even better after the three timely treys by backup guard Riley Benock that tied, then put State up in the Arkansas comeback. At the same time, Stansbury was encouraged by how senior center Brian Johnson performed in the second half both boarding and scoring. The oldest Dog's late-season return to health, more or less, and his off-bench energy in the paint is a promising development for February.

"It was huge," said Stansbury for these backup efforts. "Not just for their confidence, but the team. Your teammates gain confidence in you too. And we need them every game playing."

Especially this game. "Yeah, a rematch," is how Varnado called it. Or take Bost' word for it. "Ever since we lost I've been waiting for it." Come just after 7:00 Wednesday, the thinking—and the talking—can stop as the Bulldogs and Tigers tip it off for round-two with SEC status up for grabs.

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