Easier said than done after the sorts of losses these Dogs dropped last week; a double-overtime thriller to LSU that may well have settled the West course, and an ensuing setback at Auburn which has dragged State back towards the SEC pack. Now 16-9 overall, the 6-4 league mark leaves MSU three losses in back of LSU and only a single win ahead of resurgent Auburn in the Division. And, wondering what exactly went wrong at the pivotal mid-point of what had been another promising conference campaign.
"It's hard, dropping a heartbreaker and going on the road and not doing so well," center Jarvis Varnado said. "It's kind of in the back of your mind, but you have to learn to block that out." Especially if the Dogs are to avoid the Stansbury dictum of never letting one loss factor into another. Besides, this Wednesday's next match would be tough enough for a team riding a winning streak as Mississippi State hosts South Carolina (18-5, 7-3 SEC) at 7:00 in Humphrey Coliseum.
"They may be the best team in the East," Stansbury said today. As well as the team now best-positioned to emerge from what today is a three-team jam atop that Division. "Tennessee and Kentucky have got to go there; they've already played Florida twice," said Stansbury. "They've got two road wins and no home losses. They're playing as well as anybody. Darrin (Horn) has done a great job in taking that personnel and putting it in the right places."
Horn, hired away from Western Kentucky, has given the Gamecocks a new gameplan and attitude to work with and South Carolina is easily the turnaround-tale of this SEC season. Most of the key figures are familiar enough, but now are performing at higher individual levels and in a more productive team concept. So while Bulldog players won't do extensive video-scouting until Tuesday, they know some of what to expect from Devan Downey, Zam Fredrick, Dominique Archie, and others.
"It's going to be a real good challenge," said Varnado. "We just have to be ready to play."
First and foremost for Downey, the league's #2 scorer but much more than a point-provider such as a Jodie Meeks or Marcus Thornton. Stansbury said those guards are charged with scoring only. "Neither are looking to create like this guy is. He's absolutely the best in this league getting in the paint, finishing plays or creating for other people. And now he's shooting from the three-point line, that makes him more dangerous."
But this isn't a one-bird attack. State guard Barry Stewart has faced Fredrick a couple of times in his career, "and he's pretty good. And they've got a load inside who is pretty solid for them." That being Archie, who plays bigger than his 6-7, 200 pound listing. The Gamecocks also have 230-pounder Mike Holmes loading up the paint more and changing their approach at each end. When State won a tight one in Columbia a year ago Stansbury felt safe in zoning much of the afternoon. "They weren't as big and physical and didn't shoot as well. This year they're one of the best three-point team in the league and you've got to keep guys out of the lane."
State's coach points to another key difference in the '09 Cocks. "They've won close games." This change in attitudes and outcomes is why South Carolina has been able to steal a couple of key SEC road wins and now is in position to control their own East destiny.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State has lost its grip on Western affairs. Stansbury hoped the frustration of losing at home in double-OT to LSU, particularly after State had shots to win in both regulation and the first extra period, wouldn't carry over on the Auburn trip. By and large they did not show any emotional hangover though the physical side might've been another matter. Still, "It wasn't alack of effort," Stansbury said. "Our kids played hard, and we played fairly well." Just not well enough to offset some torrid Tiger shooting.
Particularly not when the Dogs were cool at the arc. Their SEC-season trend held true again; when State makes under 30% of three-point tries, they lose. Though this defeat was closer in that regard as MSU was 10-of-35 on trey-tries and several of the misses were certainly forced. It did not change the point that for 2009 the Bulldogs will live and die by longballs.
"We have to make some shots," Stansbury acknowledged. "If you're not making shots you're going to struggle some. We're not going to out-rebound people most nights." Though in this regard the Dogs have gotten better of late, hitting the boards harder at each end with the four-guard lineup that suits this season best. Stansbury shows no signs of changing his tipoff team regardless of the inherent trade-offs.
"Absolutely, you give up stuff. You give up some offensive putbacks, give up being physical in some spots. But that's noting new, and if you make some shots you offset that." Three-point shots he meant, which is where State still leads the league (for conference play) in both makes and accuracy. The trouble lately has been opponents are getting more comfortable matching the Dogs longball-for-longball. LSU actually doubled the Dogs from the perimeter 10 treys to five; Auburn came out ahead 13 to 10.
Guard/forward Phil Turner said defense is an item of attention, though he added it hasn't been stressed "overly lately" in practices. "Not so much as we've just got to stop beating ourselves in so many instances," the sophomore said. "Lack of concentration in stretches, not valuing all our possessions. And Auburn made some tough shots! I think we played well but they stepped up and made shots. And we assisted them a little bit."
Stewart agrees about the need to adjust defensive mindsets more than play-sets. Allowing 97 points in a double-OT game is one thing. "But Saturday, 91 points in forty minutes is unacceptable. We need to work on that." As to giving away advantages with a four-guard set, "I don't think we lose anything. As far as rebounds you have to have guards rebounding, but I think we're quicker on defense playing small."
Stansbury has worked larger lineups in rotations lately, spelling Varnado with senior Brian Johnson and swapping the 6-3 Turner for a 6-8 Romero Osby. And after missing much of January for lax practice exertions, 6-8 Kodi Augustus is being worked in for short stretches. At Auburn much was made of State playing a four-sub lineup much of the first half, but Stansbury said there isn't a true ‘second team' per se. He is subbing players for players, not by units.
"We have Brian back, he's given us more flexibility to play big with him and Elgin Bailey. We've got Kodi some minutes in each game. It's just based on the personnel we're playing, nothing is set there for sure."
What is set is State's offensive approach; what has been missing is the old accuracy, most notably from wing Ravern Johnson. Two weeks ago the NCAA's most reliable three-point shooter, he has gone 2-of-15 at the arc since. And while fans fumed at Johnson missing much of the second half and OTs against LSU, Stansbury notes that league coaches have learned how to defend State's hottest shot…and that the Dogs by uncomfortable coincidence are playing teams with the personnel to do it.
"It's a combination of both. He got on a roll and people started talking about him a lot, since then people have changed the way they played him. Arkansas put a different guy (Stefan Welsh) on him and they kept him from catching it a lot. LSU did the same thing with Tasmin Mitchell, a big strong guy. And we all know Ray's not the most physical guy getting open. But we've told him you have to make an adjustment, you can't play the same way." Stansbury adds that if Johnson can avoid being pinned-down by a lone defender, or better yet beat people off the dribble, he can change the entire defensive plans in State's favor. "And get in the lane and draw fouls, that's something he has to do better."
Stansbury confirmed Monday that freshman guard Jacquiese Holcombe is now off the suspension that began in mid-January for unspecified reasons. Nor were reasons for reinstatement offered today. "He's back with the team," Stansbury said, adding only that the rookie is working with the ‘gold' or practice-opponent squad. Holcombe, who hadn't played since Dec. 18, had been struggling anyway with effects from summer surgery that included a rod placed in the broken foot and unable to play.
Whatever this does or doesn't for depth is a minor matter at this point of the season. Of more immediate concern are the scars State players could still be carrying after last week's painful losses, since with three weeks and six regular-season games remaining much remains in play. Old Dogs like Stewart and Varnado have been through similar struggles and know the February score; their task now includes keeping the kids up to emotional speed down the SEC stretch. Varnado is optimistic how younger players will handle the situation.
"I think they're able to know it's a must-win right now. We've got two games this week, one at home and one on the road, so it's a must-win. And they know that."