"Concerned?" Coach Rick Stansbury interrupted a query. "Yeah, you don't have to finish that question!"
The Bulldog coach's concerns are natural enough. Kentucky arrives ranked #2 though for all intents co-number-one in most national minds. They are the SEC's highest (conference games only) scoring club and the best at shooting defense. They are tops in both rebounding and steals. In fact there is not much this Wildcat lineup doesn't do very well, and even the couple of lesser aspects can't really be called weak points.
"They present problems at all positions," said Stansbury. "Talent, depth, experience, size. Whatever they need to go with, they've got it."
What Kentucky most notably has this particular year is as impressive a rookie class as the program has seen since some of Joe B. Hall's epic hauls. And, under the new management of John Calipari; whom State and Stansbury last saw at his previous address in Memphis. The 2008 Bulldogs and #2-ranked Tigers met in the NCAA second round in Little Rock with a 77-74 Memphis win, the last time a State team played a top-five foe.
These Kats were ranked first for a week this season before their lone loss, at South Carolina that didn't really interrupt a run at the program's first SEC title since 2005. This might look like something of a trap-week for Kentucky with trips to State and then #17 Vanderbilt, their closest and probably only real competition left in the East. Not that the Bulldogs are counting on a distracted opponent.
"So, it's not going to be an easy game for us," said G Barry Stewart in a rather evident understatement. "We have to come ready to play."
Actually, Bulldog veterans have done just that in previous meetings with Kentucky, as shown by a three-game winning streak going back to the 2007 SEC Tournament. It is the longest ever such string for State, who has just 20 total wins in the series. State took the regular-season meetings the last two times, including only the second-ever success in Rupp Arena a year ago by a 66-57 score. Seniors Stewart and Varnado in fact stand to be among the very rare Bulldogs who can complete their careers with winning records against the Wildcats.
"I know Coach (Phil) Cunningham said something about it last year, that we had a winning record at the time," said Stewart. "That's something to be proud of."
Yet this year's rematch might mean the most in Bulldog terms, since they've taken just one win over a ranked foe (then-#14 Ole Miss) and need to upgrade their NCAA resume. State has regained its footing after a struggling stretch of four league losses, all in road games, with a repeat over the Rebels and Saturday's overtime win against Auburn. Those, combined with an Arkansas loss, have the teams tied atop the West though for now MSU has the tiebreak from sweeping Ole Miss.
There was no mystery to MSU's revival. First, they were back on the home court for a three-game stand. And second, the familiar goals gave Dogs back their shooting eye with 33% or better outside accuracy in the wins. It felt good. It gave us a lot of energy. As Stewart—who needs just four more treys to claim the program career record—agrees, the Bulldog offense rises and falls by how the three-pointers are falling. Or not.
"It's not good all the time, I think this team tends to play off that shot. When our shots are going in you can feel the energy." Energy that extends to all aspects of their game, really. Against Ole Miss it was wing-guard Ravern Johnson setting the perimeter pace; for Auburn it was PG Dee Bost's turn to snap out of a serious SEC slump. The sophomore threw in seven longballs, one-shy of tying the game record; he'd made just nine treys in the previous nine league contests out of 44 tries. Meanwhile Stewart has just been steady, with 17 made-threes in the last six games. In fact he is the only Bulldog who has scored double-digits in every SEC outing.
But State's backcourt is about to face a Wildcat squad that is second-best in the league (again, SEC games only) at defending the arc. For that matter making any sort of against this defense is an achievement as Kentucky allows just 38% overall shooting. And a disproportionate share of those misses end up in the hands of a club crushing everyone on the backboards. Older Dogs have had their share of battles with UK's Patrick Patterson over the years and know what to expect defensively from the junior. It's the addition of big rookie DeMarcus Cousins that has made this squad such a frontcourt miss-matchup.
"Cousins and Patterson are different (post players) in their own ways," Stansbury said. More accurately, Cousins is the big, 260-pound difference, getting 11.1 rebounds per SEC game and scoring 16.7 points. And that is with frequent stints on the bench to breathe. "Based on his minutes played and productivity he'd be first in every category in the country," said Stansbury.
Against this tandem the (nominally) 230-pound Varnado will look for whatever unoccupied lane is left. "Cousins is a great player for them; and Patterson is going to be Patterson, we've had our battles in the past. But adding Cousins just gives them an edge, having two good low-post scorers. We just have to play good defense, out-run them, get them moving and wear down his legs." Which might not make that much difference with no lack of depth—such as one-time starter Perry Stevenson—on the bench. Besides that, Patterson is working outside the lane on offense more often now.
Which presents State an interesting set of choices how to chase and check him. "The one thing that gives us an advantage," suggests Stansbury of using a smaller, faster four-man on the offensive end. In the case of G/F Phil Turner much smaller and much faster, though 6-8 Kodi Augustus will get first turn as usual. Yet for this advantage to pay-off requires both to do what they've struggled at for over a month now: hit open perimeter shots. They are a combined 11-of-54 at the arc for SEC season.
"We need to make some shots at that position," Stansbury said. "If not, it's hard to win the war. The tradeoff is they're big and we're small. For us to have any chance in this game our fours have to step up and give us some difference at the offense, vs. what maybe we don't have at the defensive end."
By the same token few clubs have a John Wall to use at either end of the floor. The fabulous freshman is 8th in SEC scoring, third in assists, and an ideal triggerman for this lineup. He doesn't rank among the leading outside shooters because he doesn't have to, able to attack the goal directly as needed. "Wall is probably one of the best point guards in America," said Varnado, who already has his defensive plate full. "His driving and getting in lanes and finding teammates, we're going to have to keep him out of that lane. It's going to be hard."
It's going to be up to Bost, Stansbury said. Normally Stewart would draw the top opposing guard, but the MSU coach thinks frosh Eric Bledsoe merits his top defender's attention. "Some coaches say Bledsoe is faster," Stansbury said. So Bost has the first and perhaps biggest challenge of the night, and Stansbury stresses this isn't a battle to be won by just outscoring the counterpart. "He'll be ready to play. I don't want him to take it personally but I want it to be a personal challenge, if that makes any sense. He's had some of his better games against those challenges."
State is now dealing with another sort of challenge, a more welcome one. While Johnson, the team's top gunner, won't lose his lineup spot—he shook off a blow to the face that knocked him out of the Auburn game—the coach is pleased with how soph F Romero Osby has come to the fore the last two games. Osby's scoring was decisive late in the Ole Miss game, and when he replaced Johnson the bigger, stronger, and more aggressive defense Osby brought was the right fit against the Tiger team. His 11 Saturday points were a SEC-season high as Osby has shot 6-of-12 the last two games and made free throws to boot.
"I think I played well, to contribute as much as I can," Osby said. "I played hard and a lot of balls bounced my way. I've got a little more confidence making plays around the basket. I really don't have a defined position sometimes, so it's just finding my way, seeing where I fit in."
"Ro is defending very well, and he's going to rebound," Stansbury said. "He's going to do those things better (than Johnson). He's a total team guy." That's good news because it will take a total team effort and maybe a little more for the Bulldogs to meet this challenge. Even then, State cannot invest so much into this one high-profile match as to risk deflation down the road. Or on the road, rather, with a weekend trip to LSU that will mean just as much to MSU's tournament time hopes.
Or as Varnado would say, it's another game...