Depending on which national analysts one may favor, as of the first day of March—Varnado's birthday that is—Mississippi State can slide to either side of the various ‘bubbles' being projected for the field-of-64. Some say the Bulldogs (21-8, 9-5 SEC) are probably among the In crowd; others have them listed just outside their brackets. What it really means is that Stansbury's squad can still determine their own NCAA fate by how they handle the remaining regular season games and upcoming SEC Tournament.
"I don't know about everybody else, but my TV is always on ESPN!" forward Kodi Augustus said. "I pay attention to it and try not to worry about it, still play to win. But you can't not see it because it's right there on TV every day talking about the tournament, who is in and who is out."
The Bulldogs have certainly strengthened their ‘In' status with a three-game winning streak that has pushed them far enough in front of the West pack that State is now assured of at the very least a shared Division championship. And even if either Arkansas or Ole Miss (both cannot as they play this Saturday) were able to end up tied with State in SEC record, the Bulldogs would still own the tiebreak on either. Thus MSU will go to Nashville next week seeded #1 from the West. One more win this week, over either Auburn or Tennessee, gives State an unhindered Division crown.
All well-and-good, and as has come to be expected of the program that has won or shared a Division-most seven West titles. But as Stansbury said today, he hopes this team's season-long focus was not merely on a one-seed in the SEC Tournament.
"There's a lot more at stake. We've got that, but we're not finished yet. And our kids understand there's a lot of business not finished yet. We're still playing for a lot of things." Specifically, earning a bid and best possible seeding to the NCAA's tournament the following week. That item of business is very much unfinished.
"We look at it to see where we're at," said Varnado. "They've got us last four in, third spot; we just try to stay focused on the task at hand. We've got a tough Auburn team coming up, their Senior Night and closing the arena down, so it's going to be real tough to get a win out of it."
The senior knows what he's talking about, as Mississippi State has dropped two of the past four trips to Beard-Eaves Coliseum including a 91-76 final last season. This by the way will be the last time a Bulldog team, or any visiting squad for that matter, plays in Auburn's gym as it is being replaced for next winter. Add to that a number of Tiger upperclassmen to be recognized prior to the 7:00 tipoff and the ingredients are there for an emotional evening. But then what Mississippi State's side will be feeling are the tensions of their own post-season position…and memories not even three-weeks old of how the Tigers took them to overtime in Humphrey Coliseum.
In fact the Bulldogs know they were a little lucky to escape with a 85-75 extra-innings victory, as Auburn gave their very best shot. The Tigers (14-15, 5-9 SEC) may have little left to play for beyond senior class and gym-closing ceremonies, but Stansbury has a few particular reasons for concern.
"Offensively they're the toughest team in this league to match up with," he said. "Particularly when they can make shots they can beat anybody, anywhere. And they seem to have spurts where they can really shoot it." In fact the Tigers are the only SEC team taking and making more outside shots in league play than a Bulldog squad that relies pretty heavily on arc-offense itself. In round-one at the Hump, the Dogs won the battle of long-range shooting and thus the game making 11-of-34 at the arc compared to 9-of-33 for the Tigers.
Also given the nature of Auburn's normal lineup, this is one matchup where State's standard ‘small' squad approach does not produce advantages in speed, shooting, or pressure. And since Auburn already concedes the rebounding battle there is little to gain here either. Thus Wednesday has the makings of a shootout, and that worries Stansbury a little since the Tigers are aiming at the home nets.
Yet maybe it is the home team that ought to be more concerned, because the Bulldogs have been hot at long-range in their three-game winning streak making 38%. In Saturday's win at South Carolina they were 10-of-21 on trey-tries with half the longballs provided by senior guard Barry Stewart. This was the same week that Stewart became MSU's most prolific trey-maker ever, somewhat coincidentally. But he isn't the only Dog scorching nets. Since coming off a one-game suspension G Ravern Johnson is 9-of-25 on trey-tries, and Augustus has gotten in on the outside act as well with three treys in the last two wins.
In fact Augustus, much as a year ago at this time, has blossomed again into a front-line contributor playing inside and outside the lane. He scored 24 points last week on 7-of-12 total shooting with seven free shots, but also grabbed 16 total rebounds. Stansbury let the junior forward play an entire second half at South Carolina and a season-most 35 minutes. "I felt comfortable where was at mentally in the game," the coach said. "I thought he had a good ‘attack' mode against that press, we were able to play six-eight minutes of zone that second half and I like him in that zone."
"I didn't even realize until the end of the game I hadn't come out," Augustus admitted. For that matter no Dog who began the second half left the court as Stansbury rode that squad to the finish. That helped Varnado notch another double-double for his senior year, the 17th in 29 games, with 19 points and ten rebounds. Though he only had one block in 37 minutes in the first game after becoming the NCAA's all-time leader in swats.
In so may ways Saturday was the ideal Dog game; the outside shots were dropping, Varnado working inside for easy scores, and everyone getting to the foul line where they were 15-of-20. "I thought we had great balance getting it to Jarvis and scoring, at the same time we got fouled driving to the paint or dribbling," Stansbury said. And of course limiting the Gamecocks to 25% outside shooting on their court.
"Everybody is picking it up, we're all playing together better as a team," said Augustus. "Y'all can see that."
But then the folk who select at-large entrants into the NCAA Tournament need to see some more such efforts from the Bulldogs before issuing a bid. And losing to Auburn might cripple State's status beyond anything but winning the automatic bid as they did last year in Tampa. At least, as Stansbury said, "They've been through it, they understand."
Meanwhile, today Stanbury all but stated what has been conceded around Mississippi State for several weeks now, that freshman forward Renardo Sidney will not play this season. "It's nothing official, but we're down to the last week so it's very obvious it doesn't matter," Stansbury said. "I've got two games left, when you had eight games left he could have made a difference."
Sidney's eligibility case remains unresolved though in mid-February the University said there would be no objection filed against the list of charges provided by the NCAA regarding the Sidney family's move to and Renardo's prep career in southern California, and issues involving his participation in AAU club competition. None of the three parties involved—MSU, the NCAA, nor the Sidneys—have commented publicly in recent weeks on the case's movement. Or, lack thereof.
"We anticipated finding out something this week," Stansbury said today. Though it needs noting that has been said several times before by State staff with nothing forthcoming then. Still indications are that a resolution is finally coming. If the NCAA docks Sidney one full season for amateurism violations prior to college, which would appear one facet of the projected penalties, it would mean he lost this freshman year entirely. It could not be called a redshirt year, either, leaving him three varsity seasons. Similar, if less-complicated and less-obstructed, cases involving amateurism violations also typically involved payments as penalties for benefits received based on the player's projected career as an athlete.
As for the chances Sidney will indeed stay in college and join the active Bulldog roster as a sophomore next winter, Stansbury has little to offer. "It's not even no thoughts right now," he said. "You can't talk about something you don't know what it is, (there are) too many things uncertain about it."
Besides, there is uncertainty enough with this team to keep all minds occupied. Even on a birthday. Varnado is serious about taking care of practice business, but after that? "I'll probably go out to eat with a few friends. Barry might take me out!"