Dogs Host Florida In Wednesday Home Finale

Phil Turner had a lot of time for thinking Saturday evening. Yet instead of deflation following the home loss, this Bulldog came away…optimistic. "I just feel like something special is going to happen at the end of the season for us," the sophomore guard proclaimed prior to Monday's practice.

A bold statement under the circumstances, given that after their strong start Mississippi State is stumbling down the SEC-season stretch. The Bulldogs (17-12, 7-7 SEC) have lost five of the last six games, most recently at home to Auburn. This not only gave the Tigers a sweep of the season series, it put them both a full game ahead of State for second place in the Western Division—and the first-round bye at the SEC Tournament—but clinched a tiebreaker as well. Then of course comes the overarching significance of the late-schedule struggles as State has slipped out of serious NCAA bid conversation.

So even Turner is realistic about the current situation…but also still hopeful. "Any given night anybody can get beat. Unfortunately it's been us getting beat lately. But the season isn't over."

Indeed the Dogs have two dates on this week's slate to complete the regular schedule, as Wednesday evening they host Florida (7:05 tip) in Humphrey Coliseum before travelling to Oxford for Saturday's 4:00 contest with Ole Miss. And for all the recent problems, State can still finish as high as second-West and avoid an opening round game at Tampa…or as low as fifth, with corresponding impact on their post-season potential.

Which is why center Jarvis Varnado says it's up to the Dogs to take care of their own business and not worry about uncontrollable events elsewhere in the league this week. "We've got a good team in Florida coming in and we've got to go on the road to Ole Miss. So we've got to finish up strong. Everybody is frustrated right now. We think we should be a lot better than our record shows. But I tell them take it one game at a time, and just focus on the next game."

Which is State's last home date of '09, as well as the final regular-season match with an East foe. The Gators aren't exactly on a roll themselves at 8-6 SEC, having lost their last two games including the first homecourt defeat. Yet Florida can still come out atop the four-team pack that tops their Division going into the final week, with South Carolina and Tennessee currently 9-5 and Kentucky even at 8-6. It will take a lot of work and help since UF has losses to all those contenders.

But as MSU Coach Rick Stansbury notes, they have the firepower to pull it off here in the last week. "Florida is a really good offensive team. They've been put together that way since day-one."

Folk at The Hump on the last day of State's home schedule should come expecting a shootout, and mostly from long range. Florida has led the league most of the year in three-pointers, both takes and makes, and shoots a respectable 37.7% at the arc. Which is a bit better than their nearest contender in the category as Mississippi State is second in treys tried and counted. And neither defense does a lot of good guarding at the arc, so points should be plenty on both sides of the scoreboard.

"So there's the similarities," Stansbury said, adding that both teams rely on longballs with an active point guard able to drive for closer shots. But what worries the Bulldog coach is that Florida's backcourt has an added ingredient. "They thing they do really well is they've got some guys who can put it on the floor."

Beginning obviously with point guard Nick Calathes, not merely a superb passer (6.4 assists per game) but a hot shot in his own right and the team's scoring leader at 18.4 points. Oh, and the lanky soph will mix it up inside as he's grabbing five rebounds-per. Backcourt partner Walter Hodge takes advantage of attention given Calathes to slash inside, belying his 6-0 size. And Stansbury is particularly worried about how to play 6-8, 230-pound forward Dan Werner, a tough mix of muscle and moves that State really doesn't have an answer for in the starting squad.

"They have great versatility," Stansbury said. His team has some varied parts as well, but since most of them run in the 6-2 to 6-4 range it limits how the Dogs can match up defensively. Still Mississippi State shows no signs of changing the starting team here in March.

First, Stansbury said, because this is the group that got off to a 6-2 start in SEC season. And second, even in defeat these Dogs have competed well enough to win. Almost. "What's tough is if you're playing bad it's easy to break it down and make changes. But in two of those games could have very easily won, and we felt coming out of both we got great efforts. Even at Tennessee we played hard and were right there. It's not like we've been blown out on the road." Though, the coach admitted, the effort in Saturday's 76-58 loss to Auburn was little-like what he'd seen in previous setbacks. That was the first tame I felt we didn't play with the urgency we have to play with," he said.

"So it hasn't caused us to panic. Get one more here or there and we're not having this conversation. But we didn't, because of that it makes things more fragile at times. But here's not a lot of changes you can make this time of year, and we've been so close I'm not sure I'd want to make any changes."

Well, maybe a couple. Stansbury definitely doesn't want to repeat the lackluster effort of Saturday in this week's home finale. Because as long as he sticks with a guard-heavy lineup State games hinge on two things: hit long shots and play all-out at each end. An utterly simple approach to be sure, but one that should fit this starting five's attitude and aptitude both. Should.

"We've got no margin for error," Stansbury said. "Our margin already is to make shots; if you don't make shots and don't have that grit, you have no chance. We had games we didn't make shots but were right there. LSU, Alabama, Tennessee. But we have to have that mental, gritty edge. We can't lose both edges, not shoot it well and not play with grit."

Or as Bost puts it, "If we aren't hitting shots I guess things aren't going good."

A group that hasn't been hitting shots lately are the non-starters. The Bulldog bench was completely shut out by Auburn, in 36 combined minutes; and in the previous four games combined for 23 total points. "Of course you need production off the bench," Turner said. "But is hasn't been lack of effort, things just haven't gone like we wanted them to go. Just like it's not happening for all of us."

As to improving output from backups, Stansbury says it's a good question. "You'd just like to be more productive the minutes you get; the more productive you are the more minutes you get." Against Auburn the coach used subs as usual in the first half but relied on starters most of the second period. "We got down and didn't play them a lot. But it's obvious the minutes they were in they weren't productive." Offensively that is, as the bench players have made some contributions in rebounding and defending.

Still more is needed if only to rest the starters just a bit longer here and there. Guards Barry Stewart and Bost are playing over 35 minutes each SEC game, and while Turner is just over 30 minutes his job takes him into contact settings much more than normal. No wonder he said "We're feeling it" as the schedule grinds to an end. "It shows in the body, really. We're not playing any different. Playing 30-35 minutes how many games, it takes a toll on you."

A price that must be paid though if Mississippi State is to turn things around in March. Stansbury naturally is concerned about the bodies, but more so the minds after three painful weeks. "Is it easier for a young team to have tough losses be hard on them, yes. That's kind of where we've been. But through all that we've managed way to keep fighting."

Turner seconds that, noting that practice efforts haven't lagged at all even as the wear and tear mounts. That is one reason he is convinced the coming weeks can still be productive. "We're going to continue to play the basketball we've been playing. Nothing is broken, we just need more energy," Turner said.

And maybe that attitude will rub off on the rest of the squad. Told of Turner's comment, Bost managed a grin. "We can get these next two wins and going into the SEC tournament maybe something special will happen."

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