"They start getting magnified more here at the end because you know where you stand and what you have left," said Stansbury Monday.
Where Mississippi State stands is reasonably clear. The Bulldogs are 17-10 overall and 7-5 SEC with four league contests remaining, starting Wednesday in Knoxville (8:00ct, Raycom). That is just about the same situation as the Volunteers (16-10, 7-5), along with the rest of a frantic conference pack scrambling to upgrade their post-season prospects. State does have a bit of advantage overall by holding sole second place in the Western Division while the Vols have more traffic ahead in the East standings.
But Bost's comment is correct all the same. NCAA status will be at stake in Thompson-Boling Arena and neither squad has much margin left. "They're like us," Bost said. "They've lost some close games and lost some games they shouldn't have."
The Bulldogs certainly feel they've let some get away this month, having lost three of their last four games including double-overtime defeats to LSU and at Alabama. These late-year Ls have all but cinched the West and even overall SEC race, as at 11-1 LSU would have to lose-out not to take the Division and at least a piece of the conference crown. Mathematically the Dogs still have a shot at sharing those prizes, too.
Realistically? State can't afford to be thinking in those terms at tipoff. "We're trying to win games," Stansbury said. "Who it's against at this point doesn't matter."
"Just win," is how C Jarvis Varnado puts it. "We just have to take it one game at a time. We had a heartbreaker against Alabama, we need to go on from there. The next one is our most important because it's the next one."
The concern going into Monday's practice was had State moved on from their double-OT letdown at Tuscaloosa, a game that was in their hands repeatedly yet slipped away…much as the homecourt setback to LSU did. Bost said it was a quiet bus ride back from Alabama. Which is why his coach's immediate task is to direct all attention on the upcoming game and not let one loss cause another. Or as he said of Saturday, "That didn't count as two losses. But naturally it's a tough pill to swallow the way you lose games.
"In particular when you know you played hard. Playing hard and playing good isn't always the same, but it wasn't a lack of effort. When you have opportunities that's all you can ask as a coach. You just have to take advantage of it, and we haven't done that in two particular games. If we had…" Stansbury didn't finish the comment, and did not need to. Had his Dogs taken care of both, they would be in position to take the league title as well as another Division crown. Instead State is only a win in front of 6-6 Auburn and Ole Miss in the West, and has losses to each of those already.
The silver lining could be MSU's unblemished record against Eastern competition to-date, with four wins. Yet Stansbury is cautious about using this angle, especially given this mid-week's matchup. No, Tennessee hasn't led the East as forecast before the season. But they're just a game behind three Division rivals and have the personnel to make a hard charge here.
"They've got two really great players in Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism. Just really athletic and great size, and that allowed them to do a lot of different things defensively. But they're as talented as anybody in this league." Tennessee might not have the sure-shots of last year, such as Chris Lofton and Dejuan Smith, who could beat any defense at any moment. And their point guard situation, Stansbury said, has "been back and forth all year long." Then again this was expected and the rebuilding process should speed up as young Vols continue to mature. "Tennessee has enough talent to get on a roll and be as good as anybody in this league down the stretch."
For a couple of older Dogs, Tennessee natives guard Barry Stewart and Varnado, this game features some familiar faces on the other roster. Not just because they've played current Vols on college courts, but even farther back. "Me and Wayne Chism had some battles in high school," Varnado said. And the Bulldog center goes back to AAU summer games with UT freshman Scotty Hopson, who originally committed to MSU before signing with Tennessee.
"He's a real good kid and a tremendous player," Varnado said. "It's going to be fun playing him. All I told him was good luck, he had to make his own decision for himself and his family and he made the right decision and I wish him the best." Just, not at State's expense. Because the Bulldogs have got to get back at their own best if they are to make something of this March.
"Right now we just want to take one game at a time and win each game," Bost said. "We know coming down the stretch we're trying to get to the NCAAs and stay at the top of the SEC. But we have to bounce back and try to win the rest of these games."
At this late point in the season Stansbury is not looking to change much of what State is doing, personnel or plays alike. The four-guard set that worked so well the first six weeks of SEC play is still putting up the points, and if overall shooting has slipped to just over 40% in conference games the outside accuracy remains good at 36%, third-best in league-only action. But it was even better just a couple of weeks ago, and in their last three games the Dogs have thrown up an even 100 trey-tries. Of those, just 31 were good, yet there's no indication of any shift in shooting strategy.
Besides, getting the ball inside hasn't worked so well either as in his last two games Varnado is 8-of-27. His all-year accuracy is down to 56%. But when Stansbury analyses the issues, he does not look at shooting in isolation. "It's about making one play here, one play there, one stop, one rebound. And we just so happen to have been involved in two double-overtime games." Games that Bost thinks could have been settled sooner than extra periods.
"We've got to start taking control of games from the beginning, instead of waiting to the end and making it hard on ourselves." And such outcomes have been tough to take, the freshman adds. "The close games, it seems it's harder losing those than by 20. Because you had a chance, you were real close. You look at one play early in the game, late in the game."
With a couple more seasons under his SEC-belt, Varnado doesn't take things quite as hard as the kids on this roster. Still he agrees that the intensity is all the greater now that the schedule is running out of dates. Besides, the Brownsville, Tenn., product said, he has a bit more motivation for this matchup. "I want to win every game, but this is my home state and I'll have a little bit of bragging rights if I can beat them at their place."
For his part Stansbury isn't worried about any special motivations drawn from the opponent. He just wants the Bulldogs to go about their one-at-a-time business, neither letting the latest loss drag them down or an upcoming opponent distract attention. Can this team do that?
"We'll find out again Wednesday night," Stansbury said. "It's just part of it. It's why I say from day-one they count as one win and one loss."