"It's a long, grueling season and our bodies are going to wear down," said center Jarvis Varnado.
Not that the scheduling is going to reduce demands on Bulldog bodies anytime soon. Mississippi State (15-4, 3-1 SEC) goes back on the road this week for a Thursday evening matchup at Arkansas (8-11, 1-3 SEC). Tipoff at Walton Arena is 8:00, as the West rivals re-match-up for their second meeting in two weeks. Back on January 14 the Dogs held off the visiting Razorbacks 82-80 in round-one of the regular season series.
Stansbury's squad was feeling pretty good about itself until Saturday, having begun league play 3-0 and working back into the national rankings at #23. Then Alabama spoiled the perfect start with a 62-57 decision in Tuscaloosa that reminded the Bulldogs that there is a lot of season left to be played. For that matter memories of the first meeting with Arkansas are fresh enough that State players are on alert for this road trip. "We've got to be ready because they're going to be ready at home," guard Barry Stewart said. "And we know what type of team they are."
A team Stansbury rates better than their record, or even a blowout loss at league-leading Kentucky over the weekend. "That won't have anything to do with our game," he said. "They're back home and they're a totally different team there." Which is true enough. Whether the Razorbacks are that much better a team at home is another matter as Florida was able to win in Walton last week. For that matter Stansbury squads have been able to enjoy several Fayetteville trips in recent years, including last winter's 70-56 success there. Just don't suggest this to the coach.
"That's recent years," he downplays. "It's a new team, they've got a new team. They've been playing pretty well at home, they beat Alabama and let that Florida game slip away. We know it will be a very difficult game up there."
Two weeks ago four Dogs scored double-digits as State dominated the first three quarters, only to have the Razorbacks rally late and make a real bid at the upset. It took a steal at thirty seconds, naturally by Phil Turner, to assure a home win. And the literal center-piece was Varnado as he recorded only the fourth triple-double (and his second) in program history. He did so playing 35 minutes.
Which only reminds of Stansbury's ongoing issues of playing time. The coach would love to give his lead-Dogs more and longer game-breaks but the fact is…he can't. Or rather Stansbury is convinced for now he can't without risking losses. This applies in both front- and backcourts alike, and not limiting his starters' times is limiting how State can play the whole game.
"The key to your team is the six-seven-eight-nine guys. Right now not getting a lot of minutes." Which means the 1-through-5 guys are working overtime. "The other thing is you can't change the flow of the game the way you want to with your bench." Lets anyone think those starters don't mind staying on-court every minute possible, the tipoff team agrees.
"We've got to find some depth," says Stewart, who ironically is about to become the all-time Dog in minutes played. He needs just 10 against Arkansas to surpass the 3,851 played (in 110 games) by the legendary Jeff Malone from 1980-83. It's an honor Stewart doesn't mind delaying a bit. "We've got to utilize our bench more, get more help from our bench to give guys rest."
On a roster with all 13 scholarships issued and a total of18 listed it might appear backups are there. But injury and eligibility mean four scholarship Dogs aren't available. More to the point, Stansbury simply hasn't felt comfortable entrusting the four tight SEC contests played so-far to more than a few backups, and a couple of those for very limited minutes. This is particularly applicable in the post. Varnado would be on the court as long as possible anyway just because he is the league's leading true center, averaging a double-double for the season and about to become the all-time NCAA champ of blocking shots.
Yet when reviewing the series at Tuscaloosa when State came down in the final minute with shots to lead or tie, Varnado was not a viable offensive option. "That last possession he wasn't much more than a trot going up the floor," Stansbury said. The 37 minutes of banging bigger bodies in the lane, of working for position at each end, had taken the toll. "Way too many minutes," said the coach. "Way too many minutes to be effective." As Varnado's 4-of-14 shooting showed. In fact his SEC accuracy is down to a frightening 44%, as defenders are making him catch the ball too far from the rim and making him push and shove to get it closer.
Varnado also fouled-out Saturday, his first disqualification in 28 games. Ironically the last had been in the same arena one year ago. "That's what you get on the road, you just have to play through it," the senior center shrugged. The trick is how hard to play through a long game now. Media and fans alike have noted that Varnado appears to be pacing himself in the first half, not going after as many shots—whether to block them or score them—as he does later on. Varnado denies he is saving energy though; he's saving fouls.
"I try to stay out of foul trouble because we don't have anybody backing me up," he said. "It's kind of hard. It's about playing smart, knowing when to go and when not to go."
The same applies to his coach as far as when to go to the bench, as well as who to go to. Stansbury is able to plan some first-half breaks around scripted media timeouts and give backups Wendell Lewis and John Riek quick stints. But after halftime options are much more iffy because those two frosh posts just aren't able to give the team a lot. In fact as Alabama showed against Lewis, they can be defensive liabilities along with offensive non-factors.
"I just know I've got to find a way to rest Jarvis. And it's tough to do when you're in tight games fighting for your life, to sit back and play two young guys just learning. Because I see it every day in practice, they're just not ready to give you what you need. That's why I've been reluctant to do it as much. But I have to find a way." Or the NCAA could make a way. "If Sid ever gets clear," Stansbury said before hastily adding "Which I don't think about."
The coach has tried for a long time to convince himself, and Kodi Augustus, that the power forward can help out at the five-spot to "buy some minutes," as Stansbury puts it. "Because offensively we'll be fine." In fact he openly wishes the junior would do more on offense wherever he's playing at the moment. Because after doing a double-double in the win at Ole Miss, Augustus has averaged just seven points and taken only 16 shots in the three games since. Once noted for hasty, even reckless shot-taking, Augustus has been almost too picky of late about putting the ball up…or putting it on the floor and attacking. "I'm on Kodi to be more aggressive out there, create more as a big guy," Stansbury said. "He's had pretty good stats against different people, different nights, different situations. He needs to be more assertive at both ends."
Stewart isn't the only iron man in the backcourt. Point guard Dee Bost had a long afternoon at Alabama himself, especially with 3-of-13 shooting. The soph has missed his last eight trey-tries, though his real emphasis has been creating closer to the goal. The Crimson Tide though was able to rotate a series of bodies on State's quarterback and disrupt both his game and the entire offense. Expect upcoming foes to try the same, though some won't have the personnel able to throw Bost off-stride. Exhaustion is a better tactic for that. Stansbury would love to let Stewart handle the ball more often, but the senior is already burning himself out as the primary backcourt defender.
This means junior Riley Benock must also assert himself, and not just moving the ball. He has taken one field goal attempt in four SEC games and passed up a lot of open looks lately. Stansbury doesn't know why either, beyond the fact Benock's rotation this winter is different than last year when he was more willing to fire. "All I know is we tell him every day shoot, shoot, shoot. We need Riley to give us more minutes there. And he gives you some other things, he's smart defensively and makes good decisions. But when you're open, take the shot."
The fact is that without veteran backups such as C Elgin Bailey and G Twany Beckham, the Bulldogs just don't have the sort of rotation rhythm that usually hit the right notes last season. So beyond grabbing what breaks there are in games, and more frequent use of zone defense than he favors, Stansbury does not have many tested tactics to call upon. "I don't have the answers yet," he says. "But I've got to find some."
Besides, as Turner notes, "That's the hardest part for a coach, trying to figure out who to start, who to play, how many minutes. It's hard to keep everybody happy." Yet it is entirely telling that a whole starting lineup of Bulldogs say they'd be very happy playing just a little less for the long-term good of this 2010 season.
EARLY GAME NOTES: Thursday night Rick Stansbury is going for his 100th regular-season SEC victory. In twelve seasons he holds a 99-81 league record. He would also become only the 20th SEC coach ever to score 100 conference wins. What does this mean to Stansbury? "The only one that matters is the next one. Yes, I'd love to get one more."…In their first meeting State held UA guard Rotnei Clarke to six points, all on a pair of treys. The Razorback gunner is sure to remember and try for better on his home court. "He's not easy to hold down," said Stansbury. "Barry did a great job on him at home, and he can do about as good a job as you can do." Clarke only got off seven trey-tries that game and nine total shots…The Bulldogs are 1-1 on the SEC road and frustrated that Saturday's game at Tuscaloosa got away. Turner expects extra emphasis on this week's trip. "Every game is important. But especially the road games, it feels like are a lot more important than home. Because everybody is expected to take care of home. But when you can go on the road and steal one it's big. And we need to get another winning streak going."…Stewart has attempted more three-point shots, 657, than any Bulldog before him. He has made 237 and is 21 treys from tying Darryl Wilson's career mark of 258…G Ravern Johnson is 1-of-10 at the arc the last two games after making 6-of-10 the first two…Varnado is only 42 blocks away from the all-time NCAA mark, having just moved into second place with 494…and both Varnado and Stewart have played in 124 career games, three-shy of catching Derrick Zimmerman's record of 127.