Dog NCAA Plans Hinge On SEC Stretch Run

Wonder if having to beat the worst team in the league by a point, on a last shot, has anyone concerned about starting down the SEC stretch? Apparently neither the Bulldogs nor their coach worry about close calls. "At this time of year it's just survive," Rick Stansbury said. "You go find a way to get it done."

What Mississippi State is trying to get done, of course, is the two-fold objective of securing another Western Division title while reinforcing their case for a NCAA Tournament at-large berth. Based on latest projections, all unofficial and most merely speculative, the Bulldogs (19-8, 7-5 SEC) have a whole lot left to accomplish to feel optimistic about an non-automatic bid.

But of course veteran Dogs have been in just this late-schedule situation before. "We know how tough it is," said senior Barry Stewart. "Down the stretch every team is going to have a different type urgency, teams are going to come ready to play. We have to match that energy, we can't have any slip ups. It would be best if we won out."

Indeed it would. In fact sweeping their remaining four games would at the very least secure a share of the West crown and quite likely top Division seed at the SEC Tournament. State goes into these two weeks tied with 7-5 Arkansas and for the moment owning the better West record for a tie-break. Yet Stewart is equally correct about avoiding a slip the rest of the scheduled way since there is little discernable margin for NCAA error. Again, just as in previous Stansbury seasons, which is why the 12th-year coach is not letting the big picture distract him from the immediate tasks.

"Our kids keep it in perspective," he said Monday. "We have to figure out a way to keep it focused at the level you have to be focused at."

Acquiring focus on the next game ought not be difficult, as State hosts a rematch with West rival Alabama (14-12, 4-8 SEC) at 8:00 Wednesday. While the Crimson Tide is obviously not in any realistic NCAA contention, the Bulldogs know too well this is a squad that can cripple their own hopes. And, that Alabama is quite capable of winning just as they did one month ago in Tuscaloosa.

In fact that 62-57 final was State's first SEC setback, and cost the Dogs their brief #23 national ranking. It was a classic Bulldog-Bama battle, too, featuring physical play and nearly as many fouls as field goals. The Tide proved to be just what Stansbury feared then; an experienced squad able to play intense defense and throw his team off their offensive stride. He expects more of the same this second time around.

"I think they're just as good, or better," Stansbury said. "They have two veteran guards in (Anthony) Brock and (Mikhail) Torrance that have played well for them, and (freshman Tony) Mitchell has gained more experience. From that standpoint they're a better team." Of course soph JaMychal Green is already better than most big-forwards in this or any league, and a particularly tough matchup for State when paired with junior Justin Knox. Both stand 6-9 and throw a lot of muscle around the lane that MSU didn't have a really good answer for last time.

Nor is Stansbury conceding any motivation in this matchup, just because Alabama is on the outside looking-in. First-year Coach Anthony Grant's club has been competitive all SEC season and built some impressive leads in road games at Ole Miss and Georgia before losing late. "And Kentucky it was single-digits the whole game," Stansbury said. "They're a good, strong senior team with one of the better big guys in the league in Green, and they're big and athletic in the wings."

The Bulldogs understand what is at stake Wednesday, or for that matter these two whole weeks. "This will be a tough stretch," center Jarvis Varnado said. "We're playing a good Alabama team, going to South Carolina and Auburn, then finish out with Tennessee. Guys have to come in focused, knowing what is at stake. And that's getting to the NCAA Tournament, as well as winning another West title."

Speaking of surviving, the Bulldogs did just that in their Saturday scrap with LSU. The Tigers looked to have secured their first SEC win with a late layup, only to see fearless Phil Turner those in a trey at seven seconds for the margin of MSU victory. If a lot closer than anyone thought necessary, all that mattered was getting another win…or avoiding a loss that would have devastated State's RPI perhaps beyond salvage. For that matter the next three games won't do much good to the power rating either, while defeat in any might be too much to overcome save by winning the SEC Tournament. Just as last year, for that matter, and that worked out nicely. It's just that Stansbury would rather not base all post-season hope on the weekend in Nashville.

Taking another West title would be a good foundation," said forward Romero Osby. "We have a meeting and coach puts up the record, who is ahead in the east and west. I know we're at plus-one right now."

Osby is plus-two in terms of starting assignments lately, having taken the place of Ravern Johnson after the shooting-forward was suspended for the Kentucky game and came off the bench at Baton Rouge. Johnson did it well there with four treys and 16 points, while Osby had just one bucket but five rebounds. Yet LSU was not a really true test of how a starting frontline of Osby, Varnado, and PF Kodi Augustus would work since LSU stayed in a zone all afternoon.

Against Alabama's two big bodies it might be a more interesting matchup, but Stansbury is dropping no hints whether he will go with the physical frontcourt or the perimeter-offense group. "I'll probably wait and see how it rolls out the next two days," he said. "It doesn't matter a lot." The two principles in this debate agree with their coach, too. Johnson admitted it "felt kind of awkward" not starting, but that he played well in the second half. "And we won the game. I'm fine with it."

"I think we've got a better rebounder with those three bigs together," Osby noted. "But we're starting to develop a little chemistry. It was kind of spur of the moment, but it I think it might be beneficial down the road. I've been here two years and it doesn't matter to me about starting. I'm probably going to get the same amount of minutes anyway."

Including Turner and backup guard Riley Benock, the State staff has essentially relied on an eight-player rotation the last few weeks and will almost surely stick to it in all high-stakes contests ahead. Lack of depth has been an issue all season and one not to be cured any time soon. Though it does get Stansbury to thinking. "If you'd told us before the season we would play without Renardo Sidney, Elgin Bailey, Twany Beckham, and Shaun Smith, and have four games left and a chance to compete for a championship, I think we all would have taken it."

This week will see a couple of individual records taken by Bulldogs, most notably of course the NCAA mark for blocking shots. Varnado needs seven more swats to tie the college standard of 535; he's gotten that many or more in nine games this season. And Varnado has been able to block Alabama shots quite regularly over the years, so folk coming to the Hump can have reasonable hopes of seeing a national record set.

"I'm going to try to break it for y'all," Varnado teased media Monday. "Y'all give me gray hair!" More seriously, "That's what I plan on trying to do in front of my fans who've been so tremendous to me." Fans who have enjoyed both watching him issue rejections this winter, and the banners on the Coliseum concourse counting down to the record. "I didn't think it was going to be too big a deal. But it's getting national attention for me, and putting up the banners is a huge deal.

"I'm not too caught-up in that. I do what I do. Blocking shots is my best thing so I'm going to do that well." Varnado also should set the MSU record for games-started on Wednesday, as Alabama would be his 111th career tipoff.

Meanwhile Stewart will tie the program standard for three-point shots with his first long-make Wednesday. He has 257 in four years, one shy of Darryl Wilson's 258 mark that has stood since 1996. Stewart isn't bothered that there are no countdown banners for him hanging in the Hump. "I'm not chasing a NCAA record, so I can't knock that!" he smiled. "That's a record that's been here a while. And think of all the players that have played here, to own a record is something special."

Still there are other things that stand a bit more special in most MSU minds at the moment. Those individual records are sure to come shortly; the post-season though is a work in progress and State is in a situation where one false step could prove fatal.

"It's magnified this time of year," Stansbury agreed. "We don't talk as much about where at, we talk about how it works on wins, road losses, road wins, road wins. We keep that in perspective for 16 games."

And now four are left for the Bulldogs to win their own fate. At least things are simple now.

"We just look at from now on we have to try to win every game," Osby said.

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