The Bulldogs certainly are one of the premier clubs in their conference already, off to a strong 3-0 SEC start that has them alone atop the Western Division and even with unbeaten East co-leaders Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Even better, State is relatively rested heading to their next date: at Alabama this Saturday with a 11:00am tipoff from Coleman Coliseum. The morning contest will be shown nationally on CBS.
A free mid-week is doing the Dogs good considering they had to play a couple of close battles last weekend, holding off first Arkansas 82-80 and then Georgia 72-69 in the course of three days. Now State can afford to relax the pace just a bit, catch a breath, and shrug off any excitement about rankings. There doesn't seem any risk of overconfidence from that, to put it mildly.
"I kind of wish we wasn't ranked, because every time we get ranked we lose!" C Jarvis Varnado said. "We've got a war against Alabama to play so we can't get too caught-up in being ranked."
A war senior Varnado knows all about, having made three previous trips to Tuscaloosa. He's come away with one win, in 2008, along with a final-play loss in '07 and last year's double-overtime upset. Even first-year Bulldogs are being reminded of how '09 got away and that no State-Bama brawl is truly done until the last body hits the court.
"It's just going to be tough," Varnado said. "Alabama is a good team, they played Tennessee close. And it's always hard to win at Alabama. So you have to come out ready to play and focused."
There's a new look to the Crimson Tide sideline this time as ten-year Coach Mark Gottfried has been replaced by Anthony Grant. Handed a grueling pre-SEC schedule and a team short on frontcourt depth, the new boss has had his own battles with a 11-7 worksheet so far and 1-3 start to SEC season. But The Tide also boasts a league road win, and the last two home losses have been by one and seven points to East leaders. MSU Coach Rick Stansbury has seen the way Alabama can play and has reasons for Saturday concerns.
"They had Purdue down 16 at their place (before losing), they had early wins against Baylor and Providence," Stansbury said. "They're the same team as last year except they've added three other players." Well, the thought does come through there. And any team with JaMychal Green is one to respect. The 6-9 sophomore gives Grant a real centerpiece to build around, scoring 15.0 points on 53% shooting with a team-best 7.3 rebounds. He's also taken 90 trips to the foul line already and blocked a team-best 37 shots.
"Green is a load for everybody," Stansbury said, "big and strong and can score around that block. But he's a guy that can really shoot it and they're allowing him to do more things than in the past."
240-pound junior Justin Knox is an even bigger load inside, if not much of an offensive threat so far. That's where Mikhail Torrance rises to the occasion, a 6-5 guard who tops the roster at 15.2 points and hits a third of this trey-tries; but also has 94 assists and lends a hand on the boards as needed. Nobody else in the lineup is scoring double-digits on the year but everyone chips in a few baskets, with Anthony Brock and Charves Davis throwing in the threes. That, the Dogs think, they can cope with.
"I watched the game last night and they only have one or two bigs," backup F Romero Osby said. "The rest of the team is guards. So I think we have a size advantage." Particularly with soph Osby rotating in to, the plan goes, get a physical miss-match at the smaller forward position as State has been playing it more this month. In fact the alternating pattern has become almost scripted.
"We have a little saying in practice, 14 minutes is when they let the Dogs out!" said Osby, meaning the point of halves when he, or Turner, or G Riley Benock take their turns. Osby and do-it-all-man Turner combine for 27 relief minutes in SEC action, or about what starting off-guard Ravern Johnson averages. But that pales compared to what Stansbury asks of his center, his point guard, and ace defender Barry Stewart. All have worked a bit either-side of 36 minutes through three league games. Small wonder this midweek-off was welcome.
Most of all for Bost, who not only leads in time-played at 36.7 minutes but is scoring a SEC-season best 20.0 points with 19 assists. "That break did me good, we probably won't have another one of those the rest of the season. But I think everybody is rested." Rest is an issue with the soph quarterback who has played so well despite a groin that reminds him of the fall injury after every game. "I try not to let it affect me, I just have to keep getting treatment and stay healthy."
Stansbury figures extended stints will continue. "He has no backup, that's number-one. Number-two he's become a better point guard. But now matter how good you play that's too many minutes."
Senior Stewart, who is closing in on the career minutes-played record, shrugs off his average evening's efforts. And if his offense is still not up to early-career par the old Dog does more than enough defending the opposition's backcourt stars to earn his starting status. "And we don't have another point guard," Stansbury says, noting that the ‘scout' team is run by walk-on Brandon Bolen who can't fill that role in a real game. Stewart can handle the ball when necessary but otherwise it is junior Riley Benock giving Bost what game-breaks the coach feels he can afford.
In the post there are at least some available bodies. But here Stansbury is even more sparing spelling his star center Varnado, all the while knowing that the 36.3-SEC minute pace could tell over the course of a season. Varnado does appear to be pacing himself at times, maybe not going after some of the early-game shots he normally would chase. This hasn't kept him from getting 22 SEC blocks already, and he's only 46 swats from setting the all-time NCAA career mark. Varnado is also having career-years both scoring (14.1 overall, 13.3 SEC) and rebounding (11.2 and 12.7).
But he wouldn't mind having his breathers scheduled strictly around media timeouts, and giving frosh centers Wendell Lewis and John Riek more minutes. That isn't a viable SEC option at the moment. "Their inexperience is killing them right now," Varnado said. "But we have to keep developing Wendell and John every day and keep getting better." Junior Elgin Bailey is giving practice help but Stansbury is sticking to a redshirt plan as Bailey hasn't played since November 28.
"That's where we are with our team. I wish we could get more minutes from Riley, and more productive minutes from Wendell and John," Stansbury said. "Some things we can't help because of some injuries and suspensions." The latter an indirect reference to still-sidelined F/C Renardo Sidney who has not been cleared for play. The NCAA has provided State with its findings in the near-year-long amateurism case, and MSU has reportedly responded but is not saying how. Until and if Sidney is given the NCAA go-ahead, he is essentially not with the team; unable to dress for home games or travel to road contests.
"He doesn't practice with us," Stansbury said. "He works out individually with coaches."
Despite obvious depth worries, and some lower-than-expected offensive statistics by a few regulars, and perhaps more narrow margins of victory than maybe necessary…this still is the team setting the SEC West pace, and on a collision-course with East powers for the overall conference crown. But, Stansbury qualifies, "I understand what a fine line it is, too. We have very little margin of error." As the need to rally from a 13-point deficit to league-winless Georgia proved Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum.
By the same token the Bulldogs have made a fine record dancing along that fine-line for years. "What we are is what we are," Stansbury shrugs. Though his players see a few ways they can perhaps alter some aspects of what they are, and how they play. Such as coming out the aggressor and sticking to that them, Bost offers.
"It's an attitude thing. We have to throw the first punch every game. And instead of playing their style, play our style."
Which would be a good way to remain not just at the forefront of the SEC, but to hold on to a rung in the rankings. Maybe even do some climbing over the course of coming weeks. Again, Turner said, this team hasn't thought too much of polls at this point.
"But Ii feel that just shows how much hard work we put into it, we've been staying together. And I feel we're going to win those close games if we keep getting better."