State Tourney Hopes Hang On Tampa Triumphs

During the regular-season weeks Rick Stansbury maintains his theme of the full 16-game season. But now that his Bulldogs have completed that course, the coach does admit: the last couple of regular contests loom larger than usual as tournament time tips off. "We're still going to Tampa playing for a lot," Stansbury says.

Indeed a lot is at stake for State and a sizable segment of the Southeastern Conference roster as everyone assembles for this year's tournament. Mississippi State (19-12, 9-7SEC) arrives as the West's #3 seed with an opening-day match against East #6 Georgia (12-19, 3-13). Tipoff at the St. Pete Times Forum is a scheduled 2:15, and when Thursday's round concludes the SEC's outlook on NCAA Tournament opportunities could be much clearer.

Or, not. Which is why a Bulldog team that a week ago was being told NIT or nothing might yet get a shot at the bigger show. Just don't ask State players to look that far ahead, or for that matter to either side at the crowd of clubs with comparable hopes. "Right now we just have to focus on us, and not on anybody else in the country," guard Dee Bost said. "We control our own destiny we're going to focus on getting to the tournament and not anybody else."

The same can be said for a flock of SEC squads that at least hope they're involved in NCAA consideration. Most likely aren't given the low regard for the league this winter, and even conference loyalists admit there might be just two sure shots for bids: regular season champ LSU and the eventual tourney winner, if not the same. Two, at most three others can strengthen their case with a win or two in Tampa. Meanwhile Mississippi State has to win some games just to make a case at all.

Still this is a more encouraging scenario than how the Dogs began March. Victories since over Florida and Ole Miss mean Stansbury's squad takes a measure of new momentum into the tourney, and revived aspirations. "To beat those last two games were huge for us, considering what we were playing for. Seeding and everything else."

"I'm excited about how we've been playing lately, the energy," guard Phil Turner said. "We're going to go down there and take care of business."

If State needs any added incentive to take care of business, they need only look at their first-day foe and remember what happened a year ago in Atlanta. There the SEC West champs were to face Georgia in a Saturday semifinal moved across town after the Friday night tornado hit the Georgia Dome…right after Alabama sent State's day-one game into overtime. State players had the luxury of a longer rest while Georgia had to beat Kentucky on Saturday afternoon just to make the evening game. Where, it played out, despite fouling out most of the starting lineup the local Dogs were able to win 64-60.

That one still stings MSU veterans, but should serve as useful incentive in this rematch. "We know they're going to give us their best shot and we have to be prepared for it," guard Barry Stewart said.

"We know it's not going to be an easy game," Bost said. "Even though they're a last seed we have to go out and play regardless."

State beat Georgia in the regular-season meeting 67-61 in Athens. It began as a romp with MSU's guard Ravern Johnson torching the host Dogs for 21 first-half points, hitting five treys along the way. "They came out and played zone and were leaving me wide-open, so I knocked down a couple of shots to open the game," Johnson said. Georgia manned-up on the hot Dog after halftime and twice caught up, with first Stewart and then Turner having the three-point answer each time. Turner finished with 13 points and center Jarvis Varnado 14.

That loss made Georgia 0-4 SEC at the time, and while they did come in last in the final East standings Stansbury sees a dangerous tourney-time matchup here. "If you break Georgia down they've won three of their last seven games and are only team to beat Vanderbilt. They're an experienced team, Terrance Woodbury and Butler are seniors, they've got a great freshman in Trey Thompkins." A big rookie too at 245 pounds. Junior Albert Jackson fills the post at 6-10, 260, and Woodbury is a healthy 220 himself. Georgia also can bring 250-pounder Chris Barnes off the bench.

"They're huge inside and that's always a concern with us, rebounding the ball," Stansbury said. "It's obvious they can beat anybody and they've proven that." Fortunately State players Monday all seem to understand that, whether they were in Atlanta last March or not.

For that matter, "This time of year anybody can be beaten," said Varnado. "Look at Tennessee, they lost to Alabama (Sunday). So the SEC Tournament is wide-open right now."

Which is all Stansbury wants at this point. A wide-open opportunity for his club to make a March statement and demand outside attention. The coach agrees that not so long ago he would have been satisfied if told State would get to Tampa with nine league wins and a first-day shot at twenty successes on the season. Yes, there were the missed regular-season chances, particularly double-overtime setbacks to LSU and at Alabama and a couple of pre-league games that loom larger today.

"You can reflect on this part of it, and we know what all the could-have-beens are. But our team has been as close as any team in this league. We went 5-1 against the East (the lone loss to Division champ Tennessee), we had four road wins. When you break that down if you'd told us we'd be at this point we'd have taken it. Now we want more and we still have opportunities to get more and continue to go after more. That's what we intend to do."

Naturally State would like to see more of the same from gunners like Johnson against Georgia, who says he's ready to pull the trigger again. But not selfishly. "If they play the zone they'll man up on me on the baseline, try to pressure me not to get the ball. That will leave other opportunities for our guys to drive the gaps." Gaps that point guard Bost or old hand Stewart can exploit even against the size waiting for them around the goal. Meanwhile Varnado will be working to assert himself inside, and Stansbury said the junior has been giving his team more offensively as the season progresses even if the sheer numbers don't reflect it.

But the real key to last week's wins came from an unexpected source: the non-starters. After a five-game stretch where backups provided just 23 total points, the reserves hit Auburn for 26 points and notched 27 more against Ole Miss. "The bench had the most part of that," Varnado said. "They came in and added-to." None more dramatically than soph forward Kodi Augustus, who after weeks of limited or just plain rare action has emerged in March as a force with nine and 13 points in the wins, as well as ten total boards.

"I think I'm getting better at rebounding, scoring has always been easy," Augustus said. "It's just getting out there, that was my hard part." Getting the big soph out on the court was a struggle for both him and his coach, who says Augustus' potential was always obvious. He simply had to re-earn the privilege of playing time he'd enjoyed in November-December before State shifted to a shooter-led lineup.

"His work ethic has been more consistent in practice," Stansbury said. "No question he's been better with everything and that's the reason he's gotten in the games. Sometimes young men have to sit until they realize what they have to do to get playing time."

Having done what is asked in practices, Augustus is now getting to do it with the clock running. Though, he tends to put up outside shots more often than desirable, since the adapting MSU gameplan is for Augustus to work closer to the goal. "We've only had one guy that gets baskets in the paint, Jarvis," Stansbury said. "The other four guys score basically on shooting threes or Dee getting to the hole." Suddenly here is Augustus able to complement Varnado on the baseline, demanding opponents pay closer attention inside. Stansbury is also seeing more productive stints from center Brian Johnson and forward Romero Osby that mean Mississippi State doesn't have to live, or die, by three-pointing alone now.

"And that's a huge makeup on this team," said Stansbury. "Now we're developing some more flexibility. It's a good mix being able to go both ways."

As the Bulldogs assembled for Monday practices, the Southeastern Conference had yet to announce their 2009 honors teams. State expects to have at least two representatives. Varnado is the defending SEC Defensive Player of the Year and there is no reason, or for that matter a competitor worth considering, not to think he won't repeat the honor. "Hopefully!" he smiled. "It would be a blessing to win another defensive Player of the Year. That's a good honor have in the SEC." For that matter Varnado ought to be a strong candidate for first-team All-Conference after proving himself as an offensive force to contend with this year.

And it will be a shock if Bost is not part of the All-Freshman team, seeing how he is re-writing all sorts of rookie records in the Bulldog book this year. Getting Freshman of the Year might be a stretch though given a strong list of league contenders, though Bost didn't shy from proclaiming his choice. "You want to know my answer? Me!" he quipped with reporters. "But it's a lot of freshmen been playing good. So however it goes."

Then, Bost added, "I want to get to the NCAA tournament. That's my main concern."

Just don't read that as Bost and the Bulldogs thinking beyond Thursday. Maybe they must with this tournament to make the NCAAs; probably they must make the finals, and press-room prophets are already thinking how nicely State's bracket is setting up along those lines. Stansbury himself agrees that the '09 tourney is wide-open to all entrants. Still if any cautionary notes are needed, a reminder of last March with this familiar foe should suffice.

"We're not going to underestimate anybody," Turner said. "We need to go down there and play hard the way we've been playing the last couple of games."

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