"We put this schedule together for a reason," Stansbury said Thursday, before the Bulldogs practiced for their upcoming Saturday meeting with St. Bonaventure (1:00, MSU network radio only). "This team is just different than we expected when we put it together, but we have to find ways to win as we go."
One good way, Dogs say, would be going back to the old methods of MSU success. That's what senior guard Barry Stewart noticed last Saturday as State and ODU battled for consolation after opening-night losses. "As far as a team we played together better, we moved the ball around and Dee (Bost) hit some shots for us. And collectively we took more pride in defense." The sort of pride, not to mention chemistry, that had been missing. Varnado noticed, too.
"Of course its been lacking at times with the losses we've had. Last year we came together, everybody was pulling for one another. We've been lacking that energy in the last few games, but we picked it back up against Old Dominion."
This gives Stansbury reason to believe his team is getting at least some things back on-track. "It's never fun to give one away, that's for sure," he said of the last-shot, 63-62 loss to Richmond in the tourney's opening round. "But we found a way to bounce back." Now the challenge shifts to bouncing-back from a week that may not have had any live games but also had no real rhythm to it, as State deals with issues such as semester exams, player injuries, and ongoing ineligibilities. What to do in such circumstances? Why, just stick to as much of a regimen as practical…and hope to have as many bodies available by tipoff as possible.
"We'll keep trying to find ways to do what we can do to make us the best," Stansbury said.
Coaching won't cure conditions both of State's seniors are coping with. Varnado is practicing with the ring and pinky finger of his left hand separately wrapped after dislocating the smaller digit in the Old Dominion game while blocking a shot. The center tried to say it's alright but his coach noted Varnado only resumed shooting on Wednesday. "He's going to go, how effective he's going to be I don't know. Basically he hasn't done anything all week but run on the sideline."
Varnado begins this game needing just six more points to join the 1,000-Point Club at State. Two weekends ago he set the career SEC record for blocked shots and has 427 swats to his current credit.
State was able to get backup center Elgin Bailey a few minutes each tournament game, and even if the junior is left gassed by even a short stint that is valuable relief time for Varnado…and less demand on rookie center Wendell Lewis. "Wendell has to give us some minutes, no way around it," Stansbury said. "And you can't hide him. Because of the situation we're in his role has been expanded."
Though State's staff has worked up another option in the paint, sliding big forward Kodi Augustus into the pivot for offensive mismatches. The junior didn't shoot well at Texas, going 4-of-11, but still drew enough fouls and was perfect on 16 free throw chances to score double-digits each game. His rebounding was also up.
Backcourt depth isn't in much better shape either, and off-guard Stewart himself has been playing hurt since game-two with a practice brace on his right (shooting) wrist. It has taken an obvious toll on his offense with 37% overall shooting this season, 35% at the arc. But no matter how hurting or chilly his senior is, Stansbury wants Stewart on the floor doing what this lineup needs most.
"One thing you don't worry about with Stew, he's going to lock his cat down. He took the best shooter out with Old Dominion. And he'll have his hands full with (Bonnies guard Chris) Matthews, he's a deep-cat shooter." This is not new for a Dog team that is allowing almost 40% shooting at the arc and lost the Richmond game on a late trey.
Putting up points hasn't been a problem for Bost, averaging 12.8 on 48.5% outside accuracy with 16 treys. The soph point guard drew Stansbury's praise for better decision-making on the floor the last time out, too. But 34.0 minutes, a team-most, will take a toll on State's triggerman, and there are not many off-the-bench options here either, beyond junior Riley Benock who is still working back up to 100% strength. No matter. "Riley has got to rest Dee and Stew," Stansbury said, since freshman guard Shaun Smith remains "basically a no-go" with his hip problems. Otherwise wingman Phil Turner has to take his turns handling the ball if Bost and Stewart are to get any breaks. Much like with Bailey's limited minutes, Stansbury said he has to "sprinkle in" whoever there is available when possible.
"But just from a numbers standpoint, it's an interesting mixture," the coach agreed. And that goes multiples for team chemistry which has been so obviously lacking since the opening night. "It's nowhere near where it needs to be. We haven't been a settled lineup yet, then everything off bench is nothing like what it was.
"Last year it wasn't settled early, but we had some more parts. It's not as easy now to look over and grab another part to make changes and adjustments. But we'll get better at it, once we can settle in. We know we'll have (freshman center) John Riek in two or three games." Though as far as other frosh-pivot Renardo Sidney, "You know more about that than I do," Stansbury said.
The coach knows enough about St. Bonaventure (4-2) to worry further. In fact only one stat needs noting: "They lead the country in field goal percentage," Stansbury said. That would be 55.1% specifically, with 6-9 forward Andrew Nicholson setting that pace at 71% on a 16.3-point average evening with 8.5 boards. He ‘only' managed 13 points and nine rebounds a year ago when the Bulldogs beat the Bonnies 76-71 in Olean, N.Y., but "I said last year when we played them, he'll be a pro someday," said Stansbury.
Meanwhile Matthews has accounted for 23 of his team's 32 treys on 49% outside accuracy and scores 13.3 points-per game. "They're athletic, they're really quick and they can play small and that's probably their best team," said Stansbury. But the Bonnies also have a 6-9 big man to mix in with Da'Quan Cook if they wish; for that matter 6-5 guard Jonathan Hall "is a miss-match guy" according to Stansbury, who knows St. Bonaventure can get up-and-down the floor the same as State. The Bonnies' losses have been by one point to St. John's of the Big East, and by three points at Illinois State.
For their part the Bulldogs have had their own early-year tests, and for all sorts of reasons the grade to-date has to be considered an Incomplete. But Stansbury has reason to think things are getting better, even if health isn't at the moment. The extra bit of energy shown against ODU, not to mention some familiar focus on defense and rebounding, are encouraging indicators. "I hope it's something we can sustain," Stansbury said. "We need to because it's a tough stretch coming up, we have five games before any kind of breather."
Those contests fall between Dec. 10 and 22 and begin with a literal criss-cross of the country. On the 10th State faces DePaul in the SEC/Big East Challenge in Tampa; two nights later they square off with UCLA in Anaheim at the Wooden Classic.
"It's going to be a tough stretch right there, going from one side of the country to another," said Stewart. "But we'll be prepared for it, and it will be exciting."