Not the typical road trip at all, agreed center Jarvis Varnado. "It's going to be challenging, the travel. But we have to be mentally prepared for whatever DePaul and UCLA throw at us."
The Blue Demons and Bruins alike might be thinking the same thing while reviewing Mississippi State's most recent outings. A Bulldog squad that had sputtered through their opening weeks now is looking, and playing, far more like the club which bore a top-twenty ranking when the season tipped off. Dominating wins over Old Dominion and St. Bonaventure were a good re-start. But State still needs every atom of momentum before taking this long trek across the country, and a significant step-up in competition.
"For the big picture it's going to be very important," said senior guard Stewart. "We haven't got any just quality wins thus far, so beating DePaul and UCLA will be big for the program."
Coach Rick Stansbury knew just how big when he signed-off on a schedule that takes his team from one end of the country to the other with so little turnaround. In fact there are additional similarities to State's mad March experience when those Dogs returned from Tampa and their SEC Tourney title just long enough to re-pack for NCAA assignment to Portland. "When you experience something once you kind of know what you're getting into," junior guard Phil Turner said.
Stansbury knows better than his players what State is getting into this week. "It's a tough stretch here," he said. "But we set this schedule up for a reason, it will make us better." That of course is based on the Bulldogs taking care of road-trip business in game matchups as different as the games' time zones. For this year's edition of the SEC/Big East arrangement State has drawn what looks like a promising opportunity, against a DePaul program coming off a winless winter in their league.
State's coach is much more cautious prepping his Dogs for the Demons.
"Their style is to keep it in the 50s and low 60s, they're a very good defensive team," Stansbury said. "They've got a great guard, a guy who can really score, and they're going to try to spread that court and get something late in the shot clock. And they are not going to give you anything easy." Though the veteran Bulldogs ought to have some recognition of how the Demons operate out of a lineup that often as not plants four guard-types around a forward posted-up. "Small and skilled," Stansbury called it, much like MSU's own lineup of last winter.
The Bulldogs have tried to play things bigger this season, though lack of available bodies to spell Varnado has also impacted most such plans. The senior himself has been coping with a dislocated left-pinky the last two games, and in the rout of St. Bonaventure he popped it free on a dunk. Monday he wore his latest protective padding provided after trip to the doctor, and a ‘buddy-tape' should prevent further dislocations in games.
"I'm OK, I'm practicing full-time this week," Varnado said. To which Stansbury added that last week while the All-SEC center was sidelined "We ran him to death, he may have decided it's better to practice!" State will need the SEC's all-time shot block leader, and newest member of the school's 1,000-Point Club, at his best to shut down the Demons around the goal. Farther out Stansbury wants to see the same sort of Dog-ged defense displayed in the past two victories. Especially against St. Bonaventure, when State made what was up to then the NCAA's best-shooting squad look helpless.
True, in their win the Bulldog matched the program standard with 16 three-point goals. And as Stansbury said, making shots makes this world go-round. "But I thought we came in with great focus and defensively set the tone of the game. And because we got stops we were able to get out in transition."
"You have to build off what we did," said Stewart. "Obviously we shot the ball real well, that always helps. And I think our intensity and energy were better." Certainly that attitude was welcome, but the bigger question would be why a team with an intact lineup and rotation and lofty pre-season expectations would need to pick up intensity-and-energy in the first place. Yet that was the painful fact from the first two weeks of play where the Bulldogs were playing out-of-synch and, equally, out-of-character. As disappointing as that was, the coaching staff at least knew where to look for some old sparks.
"Caoch C (Phil Cunningham) talked to me on the South Padre Island trip," Turner said. "He said I needed to try to get everybody going and not just myself, let everybody feed off me and pick it up. So I tried to interact more with the guys and boost their fire up."
It worked quite nicely with a 105-53 blowout of the Bonnies where everything went right for State, whether it was all those longballs dropping or throttling St. Bonaventure's offense start-to-finish. "If I could bottle that up somehow I would," Stansbury said, because there are still unfinished aspects to his squad that only lots more good play and hopefully a return to good health of some personnel can fully fix. Such as getting Riley Benock, the only true point guard on the Bulldog bench, up to full strength. The junior showed encouraging signs by playing 16 minutes on Saturday and hitting a trio of treys himself, with five assists. Benock can not only provide priceless down-minutes for Stewart and staring PG Dee Bost but make his own contributions on a thin perimeter.
Around the backboard freshman Wendell Lewis had his best college showing against a capable foe, giving seven points in 15 minutes with three blocks and five boards. This eases the pressure for junior Elgin Bailey, still coming back slowly from that March ankle dislocation, to have to play more minutes and make more court-trips that good for his current condition. And when State returns from California, frosh C John Riek will finally be cleared by the NCAA for action.
"Having another big body will help," Stansbury said, cautioning though that "We'll have to see what the speed of the game does, when he's having to think out there. But he'll do it wide-open. And he'll get some fouls, I don't know what the record is as far as minutes played and fouls but he's got a chance to go after that!"
After a two-game suspension PF Kodi Augustus was able to give a double-digit points boost off the bench in two games, earning a start for St. Bonaventure that produced 17 points, three threes, and five boards. The big junior has been asked to help Varnado in the paint offensively but against these upcoming foes Augustus' inside/outside ability should pay off handsomely. He took Turner's starting job Saturday though the junior sparkplug is entirely comfortable coming off the bench and doing, well, anything and everything as usual.
Nor is Turner now worried as much about this team taking all pre-SEC season to find an identity as was the case last December. "I don't think so. I think we know pretty much what we need to do and how we need to win. If we pick up our energy and intensity and effort." And, the old Dog said, be sure to grab whatever rest is available in hotels or on planes these next five days.
Turner also noted Monday that he had yet to do any scouting of DePaul. But he and some teammates had caught UCLA in action a few days back, and Stansbury watched the Bruins take Kansas to the wire. "They still have all those great players, all those McDonalds All-American guys," the coach said. So Stansbury isn't putting much stock in a slow UCLA start to their season. "Obviously they've got a lot of that figured out because they had a chance down the stretch against Kansas."
There's an obvious sideline-irony to Saturday's 12:30(PT) game in Anaheim, though barring a sudden NCAA go-ahead Renardo Sidney won't be taking the team-trip back to his most recent prior zip code. This McDonalds All-American played his high school ball in L.A. and had narrowed his college choices down to either UCLA or cross-town rival USC. When both programs withdrew offers, the Mississippi native opted to come back home and play for State. He's still waiting the chance to do so as the governing body's eligibility staffers continues to evaluate his case to participate. And since Sidney is not dressing for games—he does practice normally—State has not taken him on any road trips.
Naturally some suggested that Sidney's unresolved status has been a drag on the entire team. Not so, the Dogs say. "Excuses are unacceptable," said Stewart. "What's going on with Sid doesn't and can't affect the team, that's an issue we have no control over."
Bost agreed. "I don't see it as a distraction for us. He hasn't been cleared this whole so we've been dealing with it a long time. We just block it out and go practice every day." In fact, Bost added, the freshman has been a locker-room cheerleader. "He's for us, he wants us to win." Meanwhile Stansbury hopes to win the Sidney case as well, though he avoids directly commenting on the situation. MSU officials also caution against assuming that since Riek is to be cleared after the specified nine-game penalty for old amateurism violations that Sidney's outcome will automatically follow the same script. But then again, it just might.
Either way, Stansbury knows who he has available to play this week's key games. And, how little turnaround time there will be as State will arrive in L.A. for a Friday workout and game 24 hours later. "So it's all quick, there won't be a whole lot of practice, some preparation for what they do but not a lot of time." And if this trip weren't enough, "Then you come back home and play a really, really good Wright State team." That's on Dec. 16th back at Humphrey Coliseum.
Thus coach and players alike are indeed looking to catch a little of that old fire from their March trip to Tampa. "I'm sure we'll have a lot of fans there," said Varnado, though Turner isn't as certain. "I hope so! You never can tell, we might have made some people mad! But hopefully we have some carry-on from March."
And, hopefully something to carry on beyond this week or even month. "When it comes out at the end of the year having a win against a UCLA, and a DePaul, always looks good trying to get into the tournament," noted Varnado.