That is the theme Mississippi State's coach is stressing as the Bulldogs (2-1) conclude their season-opening homestand of four games. The locker-room audience has certainly got the word. Though to their credit, State players themselves don't need many reminders of the need to upgrade both their efforts and efficiencies before taking to the road for a weekend.
"I think we kind of play down to the level of our competition," said Jarvis Varnado. The senior center was referring to less-than-invigorating victories over Southeastern Louisiana (82-67) and Bethune-Cookman (67-51) where the Bulldogs were also clearly the better ball club. But where they also did not play better-enough to satisfy either themselves or their coach. "As you can see against Cookman we played down to the level," Varnado said. "When we play teams like that we need to play our style of ball."
Stansbury said he didn't like hearing that evaluation from a veteran…but neither could he disagree.
"Naturally, do you get up for it (lesser foes) like Kentucky? I think you know the answer. But the key is to develop the ability where you play everybody the same every possession, so you're used to playing a certain way."
At the same time the Bulldogs have at least some reasons that have hampered consistency. Stansbury knew coming into the campaign his November roster was limited by injuries and ineligibilities. Those issues remain for now, though on the health front a couple of gimpy Dogs are being eased back into action. Backup point guard Riley Benock is playing himself back into condition and gave 19 good minutes against B-C. Backup center Elgin Bailey did not play Saturday, having shown in just one minute against SELa he wasn't up to speed yet. "Three trips and he was winded," Stansbury said.
Bailey's injured ankle is coming back faster than expected though and he'll be eased back into more work as available. But guards Twany Beckham and Shaun Smith won't be. Beckham is out for the year at this point and Smith hasn't practiced since the first game, with follow-up checks of his injured hip. Meanwhile freshmen centers John Riek and Renardo Sidney remain unavailable for eligibility, though at least Riek knows he will be activated for the 10th game. And "We're still waiting for an answer (from the NCAA) on Sid," Stansbury said Monday. "Those are the only ones we have a chance to get back."
Though State does get forward Kodi Augustus back tonight, after serving a two-game team suspension for his outburst following the Rider loss. The junior started that game at big forward but picked up two fast fouls and was limited in minutes the rest of the way, leading to an unprovoked expression of frustration to media. Augustus apologized and served his time and now returns to the court.
Stansbury has had no conflicts with Augustus over effort, pre- or in-season, and while he had not decided as of yesterday whether the junior would start or sub tonight it's clear he is a big part of the gameplan again. "What we have to find a way to do is get Kodi easier shots around the basket, where Jarvis isn't the only guy posted-up."
Of course posting Varnado has been State's very best offense so far. He has hit exactly two-thirds of his shots and is scoring 17.3 points, along with 16 free throws already. And of course his defense has been up to All-American standards with 11.0 rebounds and 19 blocks through three games. Those swats pushed Varnado past Shaquille O'Neal's 17-year-old SEC record for career blocks of 412. Now Varnado has sights set on the NCAA career record of 535.
But without Bailey or two other sidelined frosh the only true backup post has been rookie Wendell Lewis, and after an impressive scrimmage season the kid has found real college play more challenging with 44% shooting and 2.7 points. Lewis will keep developing of course but for now Stansbury wants Augustus to stay closer to the goal and take advantage of strength and moves against more static postmen. As younger centers develop Augustus should then be free to float farther out and shoot the longballs he loves.
His return means all-purpose swingman Phil Turner can return to, well, whatever position he's needed. "That will put me back somewhere like a three and a two," Turner said. "I think everything is about to start flowing back to how we play basketball." Or how the Dogs want to play this year, using a bigger lineup than the four-guard set of last season that they defaulted to for the past two games.
Four Dogs are averaging double-digits through three games, but only Varnado has been efficient in the process. Ravern Johnson is shooting 44% to get his 12.3 points; point guard Dee Bost 34.8% and off-guard Barry Stewart 33.3%. But Bost's numbers need further explaining. He's actually hit well at the three-point line, 7-of-13; yet anything closer to the goal has been problematic as he's only 1-of-10 inside that arc.
Of course Bost has also played in a groin strained in game-one, too. Then there is the defensive work he and Stewart are assigned which saps extra energy…not that the starting lineup has a lot of that anyway. Depth is an issue in both the post and the whole backcourt and it has shown in second halves already.
"We're moving slow right now," Bost said. "We're not knocking down shots we normally knock down. I ain't that healthy but I'm healthy enough to play and push through it."
Stansbury agrees that his team has not played with much in the way of rhythm so far, that the team lacks smoothness; a surprise given that this is an intact starting lineup from last year with veteran backups. But while high expectations might be a back-of-mind issue, the one these Dogs point to is lack of real rotations. Not that they like leaving the court, understand, but… "I don't know if we're trying to conserve energy," admitted Turner. Which is utterly out of character for a club that thrives on an end-to-end game.
"I don't think we're doing it on purpose, but in the back of our minds ‘I don't have a sub and I need to pace it'," Turner said. "We milk the clock, that's not how we play basketball. We're up and down the court."
"But we still have to bring our energy and do what we do best," said Varnado. Which to him means defending and rebounding with their old style and getting into that transition offense everyone enjoys. How to do that at a pace that will allow the regulars to last a whole game is Stansbury's problem. "My biggest dilemma isn't that starting five. The 6-7-8-9 are guys that win for you. That and the chemistry with that are totally unsettled. You have to find those pieces."
Presuming the Bulldogs take care of business this evening, the tests get bigger as State heads to the South Padre Island Invitational and face Richmond Friday afternoon in the first round. Saturday will match the Dogs with either Missouri or Old Dominion. All three are names recognized by Dog players and fans. "So there's no more games like tonight," Stansbury repeated. And, hopefully, no more through-the-motions evenings like the last couple, said Varnado.
"This week we have to play our style we're known for playing and set a tempo early. It's going to be an interesting trip."