Dogs Head East For Crucial Week On Road

Not that it was any fun at the time. But Phil Turner does have an old Dog's perspective on slumps. "I'm a firm believer every team goes through a period where they don't play their best," he says. "I'm happy we had ours early. I'm looking forward to the rest of the season, being the Mississippi State team that I know we can be."

Turner and his Bulldog teammates do hope they've put that annual not-best period behind and can regain the form that had them leading the SEC's Western Division for the first few weeks of league season. In fact, Mississippi State (16-5) is back atop the West at 4-2 after taking care of cellar-dweller LSU over the weekend. That, combined with Ole Miss' loss to Arkansas, means the Bulldogs are again leading the Division pack as this conference campaign heads into February.

Or in State's specific case, back on the SEC road. "We've got a tough week ahead of us, two tough road games," said guard Ravern Johnson. "So we have to be ready for these two teams." Tough week indeed, as the Bulldogs head East to both Vanderbilt (Wednesday, 7:00) and Florida (Saturday, 12:30ct).

The odd twists of SEC scheduling has wrought a midweek matchup of Division leaders, as the Commodores (16-4, 5-1) are tied atop the East with a Kentucky team that just issued Vanderbilt their first league setback. The home team is also ranked 18th in the week's new polls, which happens to be how State was rated back in November when the season began. The Bulldogs lost that ranking as soon as the season began; much like they lost the #23 status they'd earned with a 3-0 SEC start two weeks ago.

But then ranking is rather irrelevant to this team at this point. Staying ahead of the West pace and right there with the overall league leaders means more…and thus more pressure to success this week away from home. Players and coach alike understand exactly how tough that will be. For that matter just having to face this Vandy team would be a full week's work.

"This is one of the best teams I've seen there," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "I think they're as complete as any team in the league."

Vanderbilt is certainly the league's leading offensive team at the moment, for SEC play only, at over 81 points-per, as well as the best shooting squad. The Commodores do give up plenty of points too, but are sound in all other aspects of the game. And then there is the most unique home-court advantage in the conference, if not country.

"They present all kind of challenges," Stansbury said. "That building is a challenge in itself, then put a good atmosphere and good team it's another challenge." Bulldog teams have come out of Memorial Gym with wins before, but the last squad to do so was the 2004 SEC Champions. State's most recent trip to Nashville may have been the most frustrating such loss ever, too, as the 2008 Dogs fell a point short in overtime.

Turner was a freshman and did not get on the court that wild night. "I'm looking forward to actually playing this year. It's a great environment, tough environment."

A few Commodores were there two years ago too, such as senior guard Jermaine Beal. He's leading his side in SEC scoring at 16.8 points with 33 treys and is a 90% marksman at the foul line…a spot he reaches regularly. "He's one of the better point guards in this league," says Stansbury. "And he's developed a shot over his junior-senior years." Beal doesn't have to do all the distributing this year though, as 6-7 soph Andre Walker accounts for four SEC assists each contest while getting to 7.5 rebounds as a classic ‘Dore inside/outside contributor. Soph Brad Tinsley and backup John Jenkins help a backcourt that is making almost 41% of their outside shots in league play.

Yet it is junior A.J. Ogilvy who the whole system pivots around, with his 16.7 SEC points, 7.2 rebounds, and all-court presence. "You know the challenge he presents," says Stansbury. "He's not shooting as many threes this year because they have other guys that can shoot, but they bring him out and screen him back to the block. He's a load there because he's so skilled."

Which naturally means a load for State's Jarvis Varnado to keep close watch on. At the same time the Bulldog center or one of his frontcourt comrades has to account for forward Jeffery Taylor's 13.5 points. For that matter Stansbury is concerned how to handle a Commodore club that can do just about everything. "Beal is tough, physical. And they've got some threes and fours that can put it on the floor, and they're big." Not to mention a reliable bench that doesn't slow their pace, such as young center Festus Ezeli who is twice the player he looked as a rookie.

State can only envy the backup options Vanderbilt has available, given the well-known depth issues of this squad. Though, in Saturday's home game with LSU the Bulldog bench came up big, or at least bigger than usual, with 22 points and 58 good minutes of relief work. This from a group that in the first five SEC games provided only 15% of the total scoring and was a defensive liability too often.

That progress is encouraging going into month-two of SEC season, starter Johnson says. "Hopefully our bench is going to come in and add to what we do." Even though Varnado put in 34 minutes it was a more manageable workload for the senior center who welcomes any and all relief. "The starters have been playing too many minutes. It would help getting more rest in games. I try to get a lot of rest doing that, so my body won't break down at the end of the season."

Tired legs, or just the threat of it, has surely factored into Varnado shooting just 45% in SEC play, maybe the most frustrating stretch of his otherwise-accurate career. He is still getting to a league-leading 11.7 rebounds, and of course remains on course for the NCAA career blocked shots record with 500. He needs 36 more to reach that all-time mark. In more immediate terms he needs help around the Bulldog bucket. But even hapless LSU was able to stay close enough that Stansbury did not trust giving frosh centers Wendell Lewis and John Riek more than one and three minutes respectively.

Again, the coach suggests big forward Kodi Augustus as a temporary fix to this issue, though a fast four fouls against LSU limited even this Saturday. Still, "That seems our best option," Stansbury said. "Is it the answer, I don't know that." Augustus has given needed aid on the boards with 7.0 SEC rebounds and eight points; most of that coming at the foul line where he is 20-of-22 in league games. Augustus continues to start at the four-slot with Turner his alternate, bringing trademark quickness and all-court activity to the gameplan.

Though a return to the W column was welcome, State still shot just 42% from the floor and was under 33% at the arc. Which means the offensive woes continue on the whole for a team shooting under 39% in SEC season and just 40-of-136 on trey-tries. Johnson is the most accurate of State's SEC shooter and he's hitting 46% overall. For a squad that all last winter and well into this one has been living by the three-point production, this is worrisome stuff. Particularly notes Stansbury when Varnado is struggling to get the easy baskets inside.

So, "We're limited in ways we can score," the coach said. "Naturally want to get the ball to Jarvis as much as you can. But shooting is a very fragile thing. It would be different with good shooters taking bad shots, we've been having some good looks. It's obvious we've lost some of that confidence shooting and we just have to fight through it."

Johnson has shown a way how. Once almost exclusively an outside gunner the skinny junior is attacking the lane, even all the way to the rim, for higher-percentage shots and making it count. He did throw in a three against LSU and thinks the touch is returning. "The last game my shots belt better, I think it's just coming back slowly. I took it as a learning experience and I'm doing other things to help the team. Last year I couldn't put ball on floor, if I wasn't making shots I couldn't contribute." And now Johnson is a better-rounded scorer, as well as a much-improved rebounder.

But his struggles don't really compare to the slump point guard Dee Bost has fallen into. After tearing into SEC season scoring 20.0 points the first three games, the soph has 20 points the last three outings. His outside shooting has fallen to 17%, and even his free-throwing has slipped badly. The frustration boiled-over with an after-game show of temper, that Bost today attributed to no one factor. "Just in general," he said, adding "No details. I'm just trying to get on the same page as everybody, work things out."

Stansbury has seen slumps and tough times for young guards before and says Bost simply needs to regain his control of self and system alike. "We give Dee all the freedom to pay and he leads us in shots, but when you have that freedom you have to control the flow of that game. That's the biggest thing I'm on him about, play with poise."

Asked for the weekly Renardo Sidney update, Stansbury had nothing new to add about the freshman's playing condition. But as indications are a resolution from the NCAA regarding whether Sidney can finally begin a college career, the coach did have something to say about the physical condition. "Very bad," he said. "He hasn't practiced since the end of November so absolutely no type of conditioning at all. He's not in shape, that's for sure." Or is it? Because while Sidney has indeed not participated in true team practices in two months, he has lifted weights and worked out with assistant coach Robert Kirby to keep in some sort of basketball tune. Whether and/or how soon this can be upgraded to real preparation remains up to the NCAA's ruling and Mississippi State's seeing to the details as well as the necessary instatement for college competition.

That is just a sideshow issue for the moment anyway, since the current Bulldog roster is the one that has to match up with Vanderbilt Wednesday, and most likely for Florida as well. When they saw this schedule stretch of four road games out of five contests, State players knew as far back as October it would be a crucial point in the overall drive for 2010 titles. Now having given away their two-game West margin, it is that much bigger in the picture.

"It's discussed from day-one, how hard it s to go on the road and win," said Turner. "The guys know the importance of it." At the same time, Turner and the guys also expect they can take care of this challenging business and remain out in front of their West race. "We feel we're back on the right track of playing our basketball. And the guys know how big it is."

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