Bulldogs Enjoy Holiday Spirit With Win Streak

Barry Stewart faked offense at being asked which elf he was. "I'm the Big Guy!" he grinned, wearing the Santa-style cap to Monday's press conference. It fit the setting nicely, the Claus-red replaced by Maroon and bearing the official school logo. More than that, it represented the mood of both Stewart and team. "Yeah, the Christmas spirit. We're feeling good."

"We're on a good win streak and we're heading in the right direction."

A very good win streak, and a much better direction. Mississippi State is on a four-game run that has the Bulldogs 7-2 and playing the kind of basketball they expected of this season. "We're having a lot of fun," said guard Phil Turner. "Because we're playing well with each other. We're enjoying winning right now so that will give you a little more energy."

Coach Rick Stansbury naturally hopes his team can keep up that energy—not to mention efficiency—the Bulldogs have shown in reeling off four impressive victories. Since dropping a last-shot decision to Richmond back on November 27, State has routed their victims by an average of 29 points. And these have not been the typical pre-conference fodder, with names on the ‘L' column including St. Bonaventure, DePaul, and UCLA. While none of those defeated foes admittedly are challenging for top-25 status, the wins still did wonders for Bulldog attitudes after a shaky start.

The trick now is maintaining that momentum as State resumes action Wednesday hosting Wright State (6-3), before a weekend trip to Houston. Considering that they just returned from a 5,000-mile round trip that had them playing on opposite ends of the country, the recovery must be quick and complete if the Bulldogs want to stay on their current fast track.

"We put together a tough schedule," Stansbury said. "And we're still in an unbelievable stretch with this game, then at Houston." Not to mention an abbreviated holiday break between a semi-road game in Jackson with Centenary next week, a post-Christmas home date with Mississippi Valley; and final pre-SEC tests with Western Kentucky and San Diego. "So we've got a tough schedule," the coach repeated.

But the Bulldogs aren't overly worried at the moment. Not with all the holiday spirit on display prior to Monday's practice. "The excitement of playing basketball is going through the team," proclaimed Turner…after denying that Stewart's cap had come from his own locker. His real point is that this is the sort of State excitement that had been expected all along. "From the start we knew this was here. And there's some more here that we haven't found yet. But we know that it will come as we go into SEC season."

What the Bulldogs have obviously found, or rediscovered rather, is their old knack for making long shots. In the four-win streak State has tossed in 46 three-point goals and hit 44% of all attempts at the arc. For context, the four victims made a total of just 16 treys…or only one more than State's Ravern Johnson had himself in the same stretch.

The junior wingman was at his red-hottest in the rout of UCLA, throwing in five longballs out of eight tries en route to a career-high 29 points. That, and his 14-point effort against DePaul, earned Johnson SEC Player of the Week honors today. "That was nice!" he said of the text-note about his award. ‘Nice' doesn't begin to describe his shooting of late, making 13-of-20 trey-tries in the last three games for a team-best 27 so far. "I just think I've been more relaxed, I haven't been trying to force many shots and I've been in rhythm. I just felt like I couldn't miss."

Johnson's outside offense is notable but nothing new for a Bulldog team that to all appearances is back to last winter's formula of winning, or losing, from long distance. In fact 42% of all Bulldog buckets in the winning streak have been made-treys. But Stansbury said this is not the specific gameplan his team takes into each contest now; it is the right response to how opponents have tried—tried—to defend State in general and center Jarvis Varnado in particular. The DePaul and UCLA games were excellent examples.

"They made the decision to jam the paint and take Jarvis away," Stansbury said. They also paid the price, three points at a time. Besides, the coach added, "You can't tell an open shooter don't shoot!" Especially when that shooter is an open Johnson ripping the cords almost at-will. "He's lighting it up," said Stewart, who knows something about long-range shooting himself as the program's #2 man in career made-treys himself. But, the senior guard added, this isn't a case of everybody spotting up and waiting on the ball.

"It starts with Dee (Bost) and me at the point, with moving the ball, and the more we move the ball it makes everyone share the ball." At least until the right man with the right open look gets it in his hands, as at Anaheim when State roared away in the second ‘quarter' of play. "I didn't even know the score, we were playing so good," said Stewart. "We came out and hit some shots and they didn't recover."

Still Stansbury insists there is more to his offensive plans than pass-and-fire from downtown. Even against packed defenses the Bulldogs have been able to move the ball enough to find Varnado and allow the senior postman to score 13.5-points-per in the winning streak, on 20-of-30 shooting. So the coach isn't worried about this team becoming too dependant on long shots.

"Our team, it's very obvious we're going to shoot the three when we get it. The important thing is time and score and the flow of that game. But the shooter has to have that freedom. And I think we have a little balance with Jarvis."

What State has really lacked is post-depth to give Varnado enough rests, not just of his legs but the hurting left hand with the ring and pinky fingers requiring wraps for practice and play. Junior Elgin Bailey has not played in the last three games, still struggling back from the March ankle dislocation. Stansbury is judging Bailey's slow progress against the 30% games/first half season rule for a medical redshirt option, and while he won't call it a done deal that definitely seems in store. First, because freshman Wendell Lewis is finding his footing as the season progresses.

"Wendell has gotten better for us, the last three, four games he's added-to every time we've gone to him. And we couldn't have said that earlier. It is good to know you have another body, because you really can't go with Elgin." The second reason is that frosh John Riek is now eligible to play after a nine-game NCAA suspension for old amateurism issues. That's a 7-2 addition to the frontcourt that State will put to use Wednesday.

"I'm glad to be with the team now," said Riek. "Coach hasn't given me an idea, I don't know how much I will play, I know I'll get a chance to put my gear on!" Not just to practice as Riek has done, but with the game-clock running. Varnado for one welcomes the extra help. "It's going to be a slow transition but he's worked hard and just wants to play," the senior said, adding, "You can't teach size, and if he doesn't block the shot he's going to foul you hard!"

Stansbury as well has joked about how quickly the raw rookie will pick up fouls when watched by real officials. More seriously, he wishes that Riek didn't have to make a debut against a crafty Wright State squad that spreads defenses and lets their center go out for long jumpers that the Sudanese native is not really ready for even after a couple of years in this country. "It's not a good game for John to have to learn, there's enough adjustments with a traditional post guy. We've got to hid some things he can't do, and try to understand what he can do and play to those." Above all of course is just getting one more big and healthy body into the rotation. Riek doesn't mind learning on the job.

"I've got a lot from Jarvis, he's really showed me how to play and how to get better on the post moves," Riek said.

Riek's activation naturally reflects on the comparable, but not identical, case of fellow frosh Renardo Sidney who remains uncleared by the NCAA for play, for unannounced reasons beyond questions of his own amateur background. All the national body has said this month is that more meetings are to take place with family and representatives, with no timeline for his case revealed. One-third of the way into this regular schedule Stansbury tries to keep that issue insulated from the immediate task of practicing and playing the personnel available.

As to what Sidney might do for the lineup when/if ultimately cleared—and State holds out hopes that could come for SEC season, Stansbury just shrugs. "I don't have the answer to that, I'm not even going to speculate on any of that. Because it would be just speculation! I've had to move on and this team has to play games with or without Sid. But his talent level allows him to fit in pretty quick. If it happens, it'll be a good problem to have."

Wright State offers problems enough as it is. "They're one of the better teams we've played all season," Stansbury said. "They're experienced, they have nine seniors and juniors. They've lost three games by a total of eight points, and two of them were without their best player. Their style, they spread you out and the five-man shoots threes, and they've got really good guards."

"And its' their super bowl game coming in here, so we have to match their intensity," said Turner. Moreover, Mississippi State's home-court advantage won't be as pronounced with the school semester break. So State is offering free admission to this game, as well as the Dec. 28 home game with Mississippi Valley State, for high school-and-under ages; along with $5 tickets to adults. Also, for next Tuesday's trip to Jackson, State announced that $15 and $5 tickets remain for sale through the MSU Ticket Office.

And while the Bulldogs aren't likely to don Santa caps for any of these games—"Coach would explode!" Turner cackled at the suggestion—fans are free to wear any appropriate holiday headgear of their choosing.

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