"It's going to be new for us, from a league standpoint," said Coach Rick Stansbury today. "You can't worry about the second one until you get by the first one."
This Thursday-Saturday schedule is indeed new-for-2010 in the SEC, part of the league's expanded television contracts. Stansbury—far too young to have experienced the old SEC Saturday/Monday rotation—is not overly concerned by the quick turnaround since everyone in the league will face the same challenge(s) over the course of the campaign. In fact State has to do this twice again in '10; the difference being those two game/three day sets will have a road game included.
Naturally this schedule mimics how a NCAA regional weekend works, something Stansbury and staff have gotten used to. For that matter, he noted, in December the Bulldogs had a neutral-site game with DePaul on Thursday and flew cross-country for a Saturday afternoon match at UCLA. It was a successful stretch to with a pair of wins.
"The preparation is the biggest thing. But our kids are pretty good at taking preparation."
"The challenge is staying consistent," senior G Barry Stewart said. "If we win not getting goo high, if we lose not getting too low. You have to prepare. But our staff has done it before and they're prepared us before, so we're not too worried about it."
Thus all Bulldog concerns are with the Razorbacks. Pre-SEC season hasn't been much fun for Arkansas, which has dealt with a variety of off-campus issues and player suspensions, the frustration of tough losses, and increasing numbers of un-used seats at Walton Arena. After opening the campaign 2-5, the Razorbacks took advantage of lightweight opposition to win five-straight games but now they are back on a three-game skid. State isn't reading too much into that latter bit though, since two of the setbacks were nailbiters with Alabama-Birmingham and Texas.
And, because the UA roster got a most-needed boost last week with the return of point guard Courtney Fortson after his own suspension. The soph playmaker was the biggest, despite his own modest stature, reason the Razorbacks came within a series or two of knocking off the visiting Longhorns, scoring 19 points with seven assists. So the Bulldogs know they have to account for Fortson and how much more effective he makes backcourt comrade Rotnei Clarke and others.
At the same time State, and its own soph-quarterback Dee Bost, faced Fortson twice last winter. "And we won them both," reminded PG Dee Bost, who ended up having the better rookie year of the pair. "I know he's going to come in here ready to play Thursday so I have to be ready to meet the challenge," added Bost, who likes the extra incentive provided by playing opposing point-men with big names and big games. "I take that personal, kind-of. I try to play better than them every game so people will maybe take it different."
Bost certainly took care of his business last Saturday against another ‘name' point guard when he out-played Ole Miss' Chris Warren in a 80-75 Bulldog victory at Oxford. Though he had an excellent first season with State and rewrote most freshman records for his position, his first SEC game of the soph-season looked like a real coming-of-age for Bost according to both coach and teammates. "He changed last week more, than any time I've seen," said Stewart. "His attitude didn't shift at any point of the game. Previously he'd let too many things worry him a little bit and as a point guard you have to be steady."
Not this time, as after State fell behind by five at halftime and as many as nine points in the second period Bost was able to assert both his skills and his will and take charge of the offensive game. Besides putting up 25 points, matching a career-high, Bost had six assists, drew enough fouls to shoot a dozen free throws, and generally put the Rebel defense back on their heels. Which allowed his teammates to get their own better-games going and win the league-lidlifter.
"Coach also told me I had to mature as a player," Bost said. "He said I'd pout a lot. But I've been working on becoming a better player."
For that matter the whole team is getting better, based on how they handled the then-#14 Rebel challenge both emotionally and tactically. While Bost set an aggressive offensive tone by driving and scoring, Stansbury made some defensive adjustments. In the first half he went big, or bigger than usual for MSU, adding F Romero Osby to starting F Kodi Augustus and C Jarvis Varnado in a true front-line. That cut down on Ole Miss' free attacks on the lane and goal before intermission and stemmed momentum.
And in the second half the coach dusted-off the rarely used zone defense until State had regained a lead, at which point he could get back to man defense. "We work on zone, off-and-on," Stansbury said today. "We just haven't played it a lot." Or played it very well in those cases, as Stewart reminded. "There's a reason why he doesn't do that, we're not that great in zone! Against Richmond we started out in zone and they lit us up from outside. But I was impressed how we understood what we needed to do in zone."
Which means now the Razorbacks and other future SEC foes have to at least think about facing a State zone. "You pick your moments to use it," Stansbury said.
One continuing concern for Stansbury and State though is picking how best to spell Varnado. The senior center dominated the Rebels inside despite not having exceptional stats: nine points, 2-of-7 shooting, a dozen rebounds, six blocks. Just his presence impacted how they played, typical for all State's SEC matchups. But Stansbury still needs to give his big Dog as many breaks as available. Thus frosh John Riek and Wendell Lewis have to be ready to contribute.
"They have to buy us some minutes," the coach said. Riek played just four of them at Ole Miss but they were priceless in keeping Varnado going. Lewis didn't play at all; and Stansbury isn't absolutely set on using this rookie this week either, nor is he against it. "We'll see how it goes, I didn't go into game thinking he wouldn't play. It just developed that way." It helps somewhat that Arkansas isn't the most physical squad in the West. And when physical Mike Washington got in foul trouble the last game it really limited the Razorbacks' ability to bang with Texas.
"Me and Mike have had some battles you know," said Varnado. "He's a tremendous player for them and brings energy from the low-post side. It's going to be exciting battling him again." Washington is one of four Hogs scoring double-digits and gets five boards a game. But that's on a team giving up more rebounds than they recover on-average, and does not block too many shots either.
Of course blocking Clarke's shots means going waaay out in the perimeter as well as bouncing off a series of screens thrown to get this outside marksman open. Clarke has popped 55 treys already and made exactly half his attempts. "It's going to be a good matchup between me and him," says Bulldog G Ravern Johnson who is right behind in the SEC stats with 50 treys on 49% arc-accuracy.
Stewart, as the leading Dog backcourt defender, knows he'll be bouncing off those screens chasing Clarke or Stefan Welsh or other outside shooters. "They're a talented team and got the point guard back. I saw them play against Texas and they played pretty good. They've got a lot of weapons out there, we know they're going to be a good test for them. Welsh has been around as long as I have. He can score from outside, he can drive. And we know how good a shooter Clarke is."
So Arkansas isn't a squad State seems likely to throw many zones at. But neither is Stansbury worried now about going big against this or many opponents since Osby has good range himself, both defending and shooting. The combo of he and Augustus, who had a consistent game at Oxford himself, bodes better for Bulldog mixing and matching all this SEC schedule.
"Kodi had good stats at Ole Miss, I liked Ro's physicalness out there, he did OK handling the dribble and gave us a presence." And of course Stansbury can always call upon the frenetic Turner to do whatever needs doing against whoever.
The trick this week is not asking his team to do too much beyond the game itself. Thus Friday's pre-Georgia workout will be a walk-through. "Nothing physical about it, maybe some guys that don't play as much a little bit but we have to be smart about it."
For his part Turner isn't sweating, so to speak, a one-day break between league contests. It is, after all, pretty much like a tournament setting with the luxury of being at home this time.
"So it's not going to be too big of a deal. Get our rest, and just keep playing. The guys are already going to be up, our first SEC game at home so we're going to be up for it."