Stansbury's Squad Preps For Exhibition Action

It's understandable if Rick Stansbury avoids checking the calendar these days. Here Bulldog basketball is, barely into week-two of preseason practicing and already forced to think about preparing for a game. An exhibition game, true, but a live contest on court all the same that comes when Stansbury would rather be coaching this club in a more general context.

"We have to keep moving on," Stansbury said. Though, that movement is along parallel tracks now as Mississippi State looks ahead to both Saturday's 2:00 exhibition game with Oklahoma City, as well as the real 2009-10 season which looms just two weeks beyond. Not that any college coach ever thinks their practice season is long enough, but the calendar turns ever quicker for Stansbury. And, creates an interesting challenge for how the Dogs are to be worked this week.

"You have to keep moving on, because we do play the game. It's a little different than in the past because you had more time to focuse harder on defense and rebounding. With an exhibition game coming up you have to play the game." Practice it, too.

Of course Stansbury's concerns over preseason pressures read stronger than they sound in person. Because his 12th Bulldog squad has been able to hit the practice court running—literally—and get into the swing of practice things faster than some prior clubs. That's what having all five regular starters and two alternate tip-off teamers back, along with several veteran subs, back for more means. So that first full week of two-a-day drills was productive and satisfying…even if Stansbury applies his usual low-key commentary to camp for public consumption.

"It's been pretty much what I anticipated, because I had a feel for what to expect because it's not a brand-new team." Indeed not, what with a returning lineup featuring 94% of the minutes played last season, 97% of the points scored, all but two three-point goals, and 94% of the rebounds. As well as two All-Conference honorees at opposite ends of the lineup and proven performers everywhere else. This is why Stansbury isn't the only one in Bulldog Country with expectations.

"Of course when you play with guys as many years as we've played together things come together," junior guard Phil Turner said. "So we expect a lot more out of ourselves than in previous years."

Soph point guard Dee Bost agrees. "We're a more mature team and have a different approach to the game. We're a better team so we go out to play hard every game."

Stansbury gives his team credit for playing hard, or as hard as they could, in this past Saturday's scrimmage. It wasn't pretty at lot of the time and lacked the sort of polish needed for true competition. But this was to be sort-of expected, too. "There were a lot of things I wasn't very pleased with," Stansbury said. "But considering everything with two a days and the mixture of teams out there it was about what I expected."

The mixing and matching of scrimmage teams was somewhat different this time around, for reasons good and ill alike. That 18-man roster State lists this fall looks plenty long but there are shortages caused by injuries. Junior center Elgin Bailey continues his comeback from that spectacular ankle dislocation in March. Bailey has practiced but did not scrimmage. "It's swollen up on me," he said. "I had a setback Friday, I tweaked it. It's very frustrating, I go ‘why me?' because I want to be out there with my guys." In fact Bailey has hopes he can indeed get out there this season, though Stansbury still says he's not expecting the big postman to be available.

Backup guard Riley Benock is supposed to return from his foot injury "at some point," the coach said, "but I don't know what that point is. He's yet to do anything but a fast walk down the sideline." And backup guard Twany Beckham is still on crutches and questionable for the season at this point. So experienced depth is lacking in both front- and back-courts.

Fortunately freshman center John Riek has been able to practice and scrimmage. "My knee's getting better," the 7-1 rookie said, adding that he's tired of the long layoff. "I have like one year off. I don't like to sit and watch." Though, Riek admits when pressed, sitting and watching Jarvis Varnado's approach to college post play has been a good learning experience.

At least freshman center Renardo Sidney has been able to practice and did scrimmage, though he won't suit up for any exhibition play or real games until and unless NCAA questions about his amateur status are resolved successfully. Sidney is not available for interviews in the meanwhile, even to a ESPN crew that came to campus for the scrimmage with that intent; and Stansbury is keeping his own comments limited now with the situation beyond Bulldog control. "You'll know about that before I do!" he joked.

What the coach does know for-sure these days is game-type preparation is a challenge. Not impossible by any means, as an entertaining scrimmage showed. Stansbury began with three full-time starters on one lineup and Bost leading the other accompanied by alternate openers like forward Romero Osby, for an example. Not surprisingly the intrasquad action was almost all up-and-down, at least until legs tired and Dogs settled into sets. It was all good fun for fans; for the coach there was a tinge of frustration as he couldn't help considering what needs doing before the true November 14 opener. He's got two exhibitions between now and then and also wants to put on an encouraging show.

"It's hard to work a starting lineup against everybody else yet," Stansbury said. "If I had everybody healthy then you've got a pretty good competition level. But when the other team consists of two, three freshmen it's not as easy, we haven't done that a whole lot yet. But we know our seven-eight guys are with experience, we could throw out there and play. And be careful not to let those other guys slow their progress down."

Notice the other balancing-practice-act Stansbury sees; honing his varsity while developing the new kids. One of them in particular. Sidney and Riek may both have bigger—figuratively and literally—statures as signees but 6-8 Wendell Lewis is eligible, healthy…and good. "I've just been trying to learn and catch on quickly to the game," the freshman center said. "Jarvis has helped me out with my game, to learn how to step up as a player." Obviously it has worked because Lewis looks entirely capable of stepping into the post as needed in November. And with all the injuries and availability absences (Riek will miss nine games for his own amateurism issues) in this front court, he'll have to.

There are no concerns about most starting jobs. Varnado was not 100% at the scrimmage with a turned ankle but dominated the lane anyway despite not jumping high or often. Bost isn't just a year older, he's carrying a couple more pounds of strength yet might be a little bit quicker. "The minutes I played as a freshman (a Freshman All-SEC at that) equaled to a sophomore or a junior," Bost said. "So I'm a lot more confident, just knowing the game, the situation, controlling the game basically."

Senior Barry Stewart and swingman Turner complement Bost as a backcourt that can run the floor like a relay squad. Junior sharpshooter Ravern Johnson is a bit stronger himself, key to expanding his repertoire beyond long-range shooting. His trick will be finding that first-step move to prevent the up-close guarding faced in the second half of 2008-09.

Yet Stansbury is weighing how he wants to open games this winter; it would be really easy to stick with the four-guard set swirling around Varnado, especially as the senior center is asked—demanded—to upgrade his own offensive contributions. "It's something we're on him hard about," said Stansbury, "he's got to demand the basketball." At the same time State has two frontcourt options who can score it themselves. Osby put on maybe the best scrimmage show, throwing in three-pointers at one end and attacking the glass harder at the other. Stansbury can't decide if Osby is best as a big or small forward, but isn't worried either. "No question Ro is better, he understands and accepts things a little more. And in time he's going to become a terrific player."

At times Kodi Agustus was obviously terrific; other times a disrupting factor on the floor. The pure talent to take over a game is undeniable, it's been a matter of finding the time-and-place where Augustus fits into the team-scheme best. To his credit the junior is making every effort to fit in, though he can't help showing how losing his last-November starting job still rankles a year later.

None the less, Augustus said he's made progress in "just my knowing of the game with playing time and experience. I have better knowledge, better decision-making. And I just got in better shape, just tried to get my body right." As well as his approach on the court. In the scrimmage Augustus even passed up on his first few chances to shoot, restraint rarely seen last winter. And when he did put up the longballs he was hitting a good percentage.

"I've always been able to shoot," Augustus said. The key now is filling other offensive roles as a big-forward with huge potential. Augustus said he doesn't mind where he's spotted or posted. "It don't matter as long as I'm playing. Mostly now he's got me at the four, I haven't been switching. But I'll come down, trail, undercut some things, post up, screen away." And yes, go after rebounds, a sore point his soph season with Stansbury.

For that matter the coach keeps stressing defense-and-rebounding as usual in practices, along with increased emphasis on ball care to hopefully cut down the unforced turnovers. And, just looking for what he calls "the right mixture on the floor." Whether or not that's the mixture put on the court to begin either exhibition game is not a really big deal for the Dogs who understand the need right now to mix and match before games where the scores count.

And if their coach would prefer a longer preseason, these Bulldogs would love to be playing for-real right now. "I guess it's the expectancy, that makes it exciting," said Turner. It's also worth reporting that Mississippi State players aren't the only ones expecting big things of Bulldog basketball in 2009-10.

"Everybody is gunning for you now," Varnado said. "In the past it was teams like Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama. Now they're gunning for us, so we've got a target on our back."

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