Stansbury Wants Dogs Relaxed For NCAA Trip

And on the fifth day, the Bulldogs rested. Mostly, because after their successful exertions at the SEC Tournament Coach Rick Stansbury mandated a Monday holiday of sorts. "We just met," he said. "We covered Sunday's game a little bit, and talked about the opponent, talked about travel and practice schedules. That's basically it."

But when the coach next sees his team they had best be ready to get back to work as Mississippi State prepares for their return to the NCAA Championships. Having earned the SEC's automatic berth in the national tourney with a remarkable four-day run in Tampa on Sunday, the Bulldogs now have a quick and intense turnaround before opening NCAA play Thursday in Portland, Ore.

Or at least intense starting Tuesday. For this one day Stansbury limited activities to recover from both the exertions and the emotions of the Bulldogs' blitz in Tampa. Guard Dee Bost admitted that he felt tired today and welcomed the brief break with only a normal trip to the training room and team meeting on the Monday docket. "I ain't too tired, though!" he grinned, as excitement over going Big Dancing will put some spring back in State steps soon enough. "This is a new season. So you forget about that."

While Bost averaged the most minutes of anyone in the SEC Tourney, it was center Jarvis Varnado absorbing the most punishment over the four games. Stansbury reported that Varnado came out with a minor groin strain, too, though he didn't seem to think it should be a factor this week. Even the stoic center admitted he was "a little tired, a little hurting" this day-after. Still the recognition as tournament Most Valuable Player, and the opportunity for his second NCAA regional, is making Varnado feel better.

Besides, as for that four-game run, "Most of the guys play AAU ball where you play four games in one day! So we're not too worried about that."

Stansbury was still awaiting finalization of State's travel schedule with Tuesday departure for Portland before setting a practice time for tomorrow. "We won't go long but we'll go hard whatever amount of time we're out there." Yes, he understands that this is an abbreviated schedule for State. Sunday night Stansbury mentioned that the SEC had often approached CBS about moving the SECT finals to Saturday just for this reason, with no luck though the future packages with ESPN might help. At the least, the NCAA selection-siting-seeding group could have given the Dogs a Friday first-round game.

But since it did not play out that way, the MSU coach isn't letting his team feel sorry for themselves. "If you let it be a worry you can talk yourself into making it an issue." So he won't allow such, instead stressing that this is exactly what the Bulldogs battled four hard days to achieve and now it is up to them to maximize the opportunity. "If we can't have more energy by Thursday than we had yesterday we're probably not going to win that game. If I have to worry about coaching energy an effort against Washington we're not going to win. But we'll find a way to recover enough mentally and physically. Would I rather play Friday, absolutely. But I learned a long time ago don't waste energy on things you can't control."

And while State would prefer a better seeding than a #13, which matches them against another group of dogs—the Pac-10 champs Washington Huskies—Stansbury doesn't exactly see this is a mismatch. Or not for MSU anyway.

"Don't take this wrong, but the team with the worst draw in this tournament? Washington," he said. "I don't mean that in a negative way but they‘re a fourth seed. You're supposed to get a Sunbelt or OVC team. I don't think they're excited about that either."

At the same time Stansbury doesn't diminish the professional challenge of taking on a Washington squad that won the regular-season title of a major league, and features a real inside/outside tandem as good as any in the country. The MSU coach has the West Coast tv package at home and has seen the Huskies play a few times this season, though not in a scouting sense.

"I know a couple of players they have, I know (center Jon) Brockman started in the draft last year and was first-team All-Pac 10.and they have a freshman point guard we were aware of as a prep school kid who probably was their big surprise this year." That would be Isaiah Thomas, the leading UW scorer and an acquaintance of one Bulldog. "I played him once in prep school," State point guard Bost said. "My team won by twenty."

Stansbury notes the amount of experience Washington puts on a court, and while a couple of players are listed on the wings in the coach's mind they all work as point guards. "They spread you out, and they really defend you. But they definitely want to get up and down the floor a lot." Still everything centers around Brockman, one of those big bruising bodies that can give Varnado a tough evening in the paint.

"But he's seen enough big guys in this league," Stansbury added. "It's not one of the matchups you lose sleep over." For his part Varnado compares Brockman to Kentucky's Patrick Patterson, "because he's a strong low-post scorer." Or just the sort of player that when the NCAA's leading shot-blocker is on his game could end up with quite a few rejections. Varnado swatted 22 shots in the SEC Tournament, and reviewing those tapes will put a few questions in Washington minds about how to attack State.

"Jarvis is kind of skinny but at the same time every person we've played this year Jarvis has altered his shot," said Bost. "So that shouldn't be a problem."

As far as MSU's plans, Stansbury said as much info as available in two days will be digested and simplified for a fast scouting report. "But there's no magic this time of the season," he added. The real trick is having his team recover their physical and mental edges in time for Thursday's tipoff. If anything, Stansbury is more interested in relaxed minds than rested bodies.

"You play loose when you're really focused. When the only thing that matters is winning that's when you play loose. If you think about other things you get up-tight. That's kind of where we've been, we've been locked-in mentally."

Junior guard Barry Stewart, a starter on last year's squad that knocked off Oregon in the first round and played eventual NCAA runner-up Memphis to a last shot, knows what his coach is talking about. "The main thing is to play loose. It's win or go home, no reason to be tight and have any anxiety. Just play loose."

If that sounds contradictory, well, that's how the Bulldogs are approaching their hard-won opportunity to go dancing this March. And in an interesting twist, this is the third-straight of Stansbury's six NCAA first-round regionals where State has played a Pac-10 team. In 2005 the Bulldogs beat Stanford in Charlotte before facing Duke in an all-intents-and-purposes home game for the Blue Devils.

Last March the Dogs whipped Oregon for the right to battle Memphis in Little Rock, and while there was a strong MSU contingent there it was still essentially a ‘home' game for the Tigers. This time State gets both in one, taking on Washington in a relatively nearby Portland…though in this case many of the Oregon locals will be pulling hard for the SEC visitors against their league's rival.

And speaking of the SEC, the Bulldogs also are carrying a bit of a ‘show them' attitude into the game since their conference got only three teams invited and State needed the automatic berth to make the dance. Stewart agrees there's not a lot of love coming the SEC's way these days. "Of course I'm going to say that, I'm biased!" More seriously, he added, "We're not worried about that. We're not going to get any respect as a 13 seed against a 4. But our guys have confidence."

Which is something State fans can rest assured of.

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