State opens 2010 at 12-2 and riding a nine-game winning streak that began back on Thanksgiving weekend. During this run the Bulldogs have taken care of business against all varieties of opponents: sound clubs like Wright State and Houston, big names having bad years like UCLA, and the usual non-conference, record-building fodder like Mississippi Valley State and Centenary. All those wins count the same of course, and with each success the Bulldogs have gained exactly the sort of confidence needed when conference play begins.
So the last thing Stansbury wants is to give away any winter momentum. Which makes tonight's matchup more meaningful, as well as risky. A Kentucky native himself, Stansbury appreciates the history of Western Kentucky basketball. As well as their present prowess for that matter.
"I think they've won 33 of their last 35 games here at home," Stansbury said. "They've beaten Vanderbilt on a neutral court, I think they have four seniors in their top eight guys. We'll have to play exceptionally well to win."
At the same time the Hilltoppers (7-4) appear to have some weaknesses that should play into State's strengths. They are allowing opponents to make 44% of all shots, and over 33% of three-point attempts. And these Bulldogs do love to loft the longball, something this team is doing at a record pace. State has already popped 144 treys in 14 games, which is far ahead of last year's pace when that team set a program record with 296 threefers. In fact State has made 50 more treys than at this same 14-game point last New Years, and as of this week they lead the NCAA in made-treys.
And the pace is being set by junior wingman Ravern Johnson with 45 made longballs to date. He is on a fast track to become the first Bulldog ever to score 100 treys in a campaign.
What the coach is prouder of though is how his team is defending. State is allowing under 59 points per game overall and only 55 points in the winning streak. And the Bulldogs are destroying foes on the boards with a 42.0 rebound rate. As 2010 play opens the only thing Stansbury can find to critique is a negative assist/turnover tally, but that's an acceptable price for playing the sort of end-to-end offense these Dogs enjoy.
Stansbury also likes how his lineup has settled into the sort of groove expected when the season began. A couple of November losses and one emotional player blow-up put State behind that projected curve but now things have fallen into the right places. Such as, working F Kodi Augustus back into the starting lineup with G/F Phil Turner providing the right time/place/matchup relief work off the bench.
"I think we've got a little rhythm," Stansbury said today. "I don't think it's all been perfect but we have gotten better with experience. And it's different on different nights, we match up with different personnel in different times in those games. So I think we've been able to balance it pretty good."
It's easier to balance any gameplan as long as Jarvis Varnado is there to center everything around. The senior postman is averaging a double-double at 14.1 points and 10.8 rebounds, and his 71 blocks leads the NCAA. In fact he's just 70 more swats from the all-time NCAA record of 535. Yet Varnado has only 28 personal fouls charged through 14 games and hasn't been disqualified yet.
So Mississippi State walks into Diddle Arena with every reason to think the win streak will hit double-digits by final horn tonight, as much as their coach cautions "We know it will be a tough environment and a tough game for us." And on the flight back Stansbury can begin seriously contemplating the next trip and Saturday's 12:30 duel of Bulldog and Rebel that will give one of these two obvious and likely only contenders a head-start on the SEC West title.
The Rebels hold top-20 rankings as the new year begins, while the Bulldogs are only receiving a few (two to be exact) votes in the latest coaches poll. In fact the SEC has just three squads listed as of Monday, with unbeaten Kentucky at #3 and Tennessee #15…which apparently doesn't factor in recent off-court events in Knoxville. Florida and State are getting votes though oddly Vanderbilt hasn't.
"Our league has maybe lost a couple of games we didn't expect," Stansbury said, before defending the conference's overall status. "Kentucky naturally is exceeding expectations, we know Tennessee is going to be one of the better teams, and Florida and Vanderbilt. And Ole Miss on our side. It's just no easy games."
Nor as 2010 dawns does State have any easy answers to the ongoing situation of Renardo Sidney, who is not with the team on the road as usual since he can't participate pending a NCAA ruling. In fact Sidney has slipped to a back-burner issue with Stansbury, who let the freshman center stay home during the holiday break. "He hasn't practiced since finals were over, because he can't travel with us."
"I have no idea. Naturally we thought this would be resolved a long time ago, but it isn't and I'm sure not the one that has the answers. We've had to move on, play games. We can't worry about something we don't have, that's our approach." Of course Stansbury will be watching Wednesday to see if Sidney does indeed return to campus as planned for the first day of spring semester classes.