"They're a good team and we can't take nothing from that," says Varnado. "We have to come out and play hard and be ready for a war."
Naturally Coach Rick Stansbury would prefer the SEC scheduling computer have assigned almost any other matchup to tip off the 2010 conference and Western Division schedules. That would hold true regardless of respective records, including the 16-7 mark Stansbury owns for his 11 years in the rivalry. In fact, and rather oddly, the Bulldog coach commented Wednesday "And we know nobody expects us to go up there and win." An odd comment because Stansbury has left Oxford with Ws in four of the last seven trips.
But he has a point about scoring a success on this particular trip. The Rebels aren't merely ranked but have been the most efficient West club through non-conference play. They own one win over a current top-ten team (Kansas State) and played well against another (West Virginia), both on the road. The starting fivesome all average double-digit scoring and the team as a whole notches 84 points per-outing, or nearly ten more than MSU.
"They're a very good team," says Stansbury. "Offensively they're very potent and they have as good a set of guards as anybody in the country." That would be soph star Terrico White (17.3ppg) and junior Chris Warren (16.9), who have 73 treys between them already. And when Ole Miss needed any extra outside punch guard Zach Graham (10.5) has hit 24 times from long range.
To Stansbury though the difference-maker is forward Eniel Polynice, whose impact is greater than a 10.6-point, 4.1-rebound rates show. "He's a guy that manufactures," says the MSU coach. Meanwhile Murphy Holloway muscles, with 11.5 points on 63% shooting and a team-best 7.0 rebounds. The Rebel bench might not provide big points individually but everyone seems to take, and make, well-selected shots and provide extra rebounding. And of course Coach Andy Kennedy's team plays physical defense.
Thus Stansbury is assuming nothing based simply on State's recent successes in Smith Coliseum. His '09 Bulldogs had to wage a real war just to get away with a 82-80 win in Oxford…a month after the Rebels had ended a ten-season run of road futility against MSU by winning in Humphrey Coliseum. "I don't remember a year going into this game that it was easier. You can't base anything on those records, they're always good at home and it's obvious they have a real good set of guards and a good team now."
Until Monday evening Mississippi State was again looking like a good team, the type of team expected of a season with an intact returned lineup, experienced depth and new talent ready to contribute. After a scuffling start the Bulldogs tore off nine consecutive victories where they were wickedly efficient on defense all over the court, controlled backboards at each end, and dropped outside shots with ease. Even somewhat lackluster efforts against Mississippi Valley State and at San Diego were more than enough to win.
Then came the last non-conference contest, at Western Kentucky, where State barely showed up until too late to completely come back in a 55-52 loss. It was a shot to the collective confidence just as momentum was building up to SEC season.
"It was more of a wake-up call, I guess," said senior G Barry Stewart. "We didn't play well. If we play well we probably beat them."
"They did a good job getting into us, speeding us up, and we had a lot of turnovers," said Varnado. "It's something to learn from going into SEC play." Indeed, 18 turnovers and 36% shooting were a credit to Hilltopper defense…but by the same token the Bulldogs have handled the same sort of up-close pressure and won against better teams than WKU. Thus the realization that these are things State can and must control. "And we just have to be better at that," says Varnado. "I think we're going to spend the next few days of practice working on that, learning how to run our offense well."
Running it is one thing. Gunning it has been the sudden problem. Outside shooting, which is the first offensive option as usual, has taken a turn for the unreliable lately. Between them PG Dee Bost and Stewart are a combined 1-of-13 at the arc the last two games, and 10-of-36 on all shots. G/F Phil Turner is 3-of-9, 1-of-4. Even wingman Ravern Johnson, who was shredding the nets in December, has cooled off and is 6-of-15 shooting these two past road trips.
But then there isn't much to be done about either the accuracy or attitude towards outside offense for this squad. "That's the thing, our team shoots three-pointers," Stewarts says. "The saying is you live by the three and die by the three." Though, Stewart added, he and Bost must regain their knack of dribble-driving and creating shorter shots for themselves or unguarded opportunities for teammates. "We've got to get in the lane more and not just rely on the three as much."
In the lane of course State can rely on Varnado to produce, at either end. The senior is averaging a double-double with 14.3 points and 10.9 rebounds, and while perimeter partners have struggled lately Varnado has made 17 of his last 19 shots with 29 rebounds. He is leading the SEC in shooting this week at 64.7%. And while he hasn't been challenged as much by opposing shooters lately he paces the country with 74 blocked shots.
"I try not to take bad shots, when I'm doubled I just try to kick it out to an open player. And close to the rim I try to finish with a dunk." Varnado has had more opportunities to do so because he's often as not defended now by a lone foe, with opponents chasing State's outside shooters. Stewart expects SEC clubs to gamble on letting Varnado be the only Dog to beat them, as Western Kentucky managed to. "I'm sure that's not the last time we'll see that."
If opening SEC season on the road, against a ranked rival, wasn't enough, Stansbury's pre-league concerns about team depth have only increased. Now more than ever he misses backup guard Twany Beckham and center Elgin Bailey, both sidelined by injuries. "What it is, is what it is," says the coach. "I'd like to have Twany and Elgin in there but I don't right now. We don't get a lot of backup at five right now and in the perimeter we aren't as deep as we need to be, and that takes a toll on my starting guards." Especially Stewart who is asked to defend the best opposing perimeter player; which this game would seem to be White though Stansbury wouldn't confirm. Junior Riley Benock is effectively the entire guard-depth at this point.
There are more bodies in the three and four slots but whether starting or subbing none have been as productive of late as Stansbury needs. And in the post only freshmen Wendell Lewis and John Riek can spell Varnado…but that usually leaves a void in the middle of everything. In fact Stansbury says Varnado probably needs to get the ball more, yet the center also requires frequent restings. It's a tough call in a close game.
"He played 37 minutes the other night, that's entirely too much for him. But no question Jarvis has held up his end." For a while Stansbury tried moving starting big forward Kodi Augustus into the pivot for short stretches against smaller opposition. That isn't as viable a choice now, and besides the junior has suddenly struggled with his own offense and dropped into single-digit scoring in six of the last seven games.
"We've played Wendell there pretty consistently these 15 games," Stansbury said. "John, it's very difficult on him this time of season. All this is foreign to him (which apparently was spoken with no pun intended regarding the native of Sudan), I mean everything. But he's a guy we've got to find a way to work in, and this is not the time of year to do it! Because he will give you a big body that will work hard."
The big body missing action this freshman winter, Renardo Sidney, remains in NCAA limbo and has not been with the team since fall semester exams ended because he cannot play or travel. Stansbury said today that Sidney, allowed to stay at home for the holiday break, was back on campus but will not participate in team work. "Practice with us doesn't help him right now. We work him out individually." And keep waiting for the NCAA to issue a ruling, any sort of ruling.
Meanwhile SEC season won't wait. "It's going to be hard in Oxford," says Stewart, who has won his share of games there including last year…and doesn't see past results as proof of future performance. In fact, "They'll be even tougher, last year they didn't have Warren, now they've got three guys out there that are pretty quick and athletic." Of course the Bulldogs fit that description as well and are even more adept at an end-to-end game. And, for all the Rebel prowess on defense, State is allowing ten points less and only 36% shooting to opponents for the season.
The irony to this year's renewal of the rivalry is that beating a ranked Rebel club could actually be the first real ‘signature' success of State's season. Or so observers would say. Old Dog Stewart acknowledges that MSU hasn't whipped anyone of current-note.
"But we have some quality wins and I think this is the best record going into the conference since I've been here. The main thing is to keep it rolling into the SEC."