"You're talking about winning that tournament," Coach Rick Stansbury said Monday. "It now becomes a three-game, three-day event for us." One which begins for State at 6:00ct Friday against the winner of the Florida-Auburn game.
Practically all expressed opinions on the subject agree with Mississippi State's coach: his Bulldogs have to play and likely must win three times at the Sommet Center if they are to return to NCAAs in 2010. Of course if MSU (21-10, 9-7 SEC) were to win-out in Nashville they would claim an automatic berth in the field, just as they did a year ago. Anything less than complete success, though, would leave MSU on the fringes of selection for an at-large berth. And that is a long shot which even a club that thrives on outside scoring can't be confident about making.
Or…can they? "I think its wide open," said Varnado. "I think we have a good chance. We know what its like to win four games in four days." They do indeed after storming through the SEC Tourney field last March in Tampa when national consensus was only a championship would get them in the national event. Along the way those Bulldogs knocked off the overall champions LSU and East co-champs Tennessee. So yes, they've done it before. In fact the entire current starting lineup and all top backups of this team played their parts in Tampa a year ago.
Besides, as Varnado reminds, "Now it's just three. We'll be ready to go and just the main thing is come together as a team and take these days of practice and just get better on our stuff."
"The positive thing is we don't have to win but three to win that championship," Stansbury said. "All we can control is take them one at a time. Knowing we've done it, I guess it could help some. Different team, different people going to play. But it's very obvious it's been done, in back-to-back years." He was referring to the even more remarkable four-win run in 2008 by Georgia, which including upsetting a State team that in good NCAA shape.
It's an odd situation for this Bulldog squad though. Here they are sharing a Division championship (their seventh) with Ole Miss in a major conference, with 21 wins, yet not listed on one major national bracket at all and merely an outside candidate for inclusion by the other main outlet. Even the West crown is given almost no national regard since the top four squads in the SEC's East half were a combined 24-0 against the other side.
Thus, Varnado agrees, there is a clear sense of urgency to this week. "Yeah, because we really don't have any marquee victories," he said. Though Varnado is hedging his what-ifs a bit to wonder if winning it all in Nashville is necessary. "I think two games, if we beat Florida and Vanderbilt, we have a good chance. But we're not looking to win just two games, we're looking to win the whole thing. And it's going to be tough."
When the senior center sets up games he is presuming that East #4 Florida is going to get past their Thursday contest with West #5 Auburn. Most would go along with that forecast, though the Bulldogs know too painfully well from last week's experience that the Tigers are a tough team to count out entirely. It was a 80-69 loss at Auburn last Wednesday that pushed MSU to the fringes of the perceived ‘bubble' to begin with; before a numbing 75-59 defeat at home to Tennessee on Saturday shoved them entirely off.
Varnado's coach is making no such assumptions about who will come out of the Thursday meeting. "Auburn is a bad matchup for everybody if they're making shots," Stansbury said. "Not just us but everybody in the country." Besides, he added, "Auburn will be playing loose with five seniors." At least scouting them would be easier with such recent exposure.
It will have been five weeks since State took on the Gators in Gainesville, by contrast. That was one of the mid-SEC schedule games that showed how close, and still far, the Bulldogs have been to bigger things this season, along with well-fought and hard-lost battles against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. "We led at halftime, the second half we got down nine and eleven and fought back to three," Stansbury said. Only to lose 69-62. Florida is an interesting matchup for MSU as well, though not the smaller, shoot-it-up squad like Auburn.
"They've got two bigs," Stansbury said. "Talent-wise they're a different type of team. The guys that hurt us the first time were Vernon Macklin and Chandler Parsons. Macklin hurt us posting-up and Parson hurt us on the offensive backboards." That was key because the teams shot just about the same and State had five more treys than the home team. But an 11-rebound margin was UF's key to victory, as well as only having three shots blocked by a Bulldog squad that has relied on swatting balls as much as guarding shooters.
"They play like us," guard Barry Stewart said of the Gators. "They shoot a lot of threes, they have a guy down low, their four-man is very versatile. And the two-man is tough to contain. They out-powered us, they ran ball screens and out-rebounded us. They went hard. They had the home crowd. But we fought that game, we were in it."
And now the Bulldogs are looking for a rematch, mostly. "If it's Florida we're going to have our work cut out for us with Macklin inside and the guards outside," Varnado said. "Auburn matches up well, they play small with (Lucas) Hargrove at the four and they spread the floor. It's speed vs. speed and they shoot the ball real well."
"But neither one of them is an easy-out," said Stansbury. "We just played Auburn so scouting is simplified. Florida it's been a few more games back, but they're different for sure. Florida will be playing with a little more edge having to win, their backs are against the wall too."
State could have worked away from that wall, and in much better NCAA position, had they at least split the final two games. And certainly a home-finale victory over the ranked Vols would have given a much-needed ‘quality' win to a dangerously thin season resume. The setting was made-to-MSU-order all around with record-setting seniors Varnado and Stewart taking their pre-game bows, too. Yet barely five minutes after tipoff the home team was trailing 17-0 and Tennessee easily turned back all comeback attempts the rest of the evening. And Stansbury has no idea how it happened, still.
"I've thought about it quite a bit. Chopped everything up we did before, and asked myself what could I have done differently for us not to have been like we were in that game. Unfortunately I come up with the same answer." Which is first-and-foremost that State lost to a good Tennessee team. But the coach also wonders if this game, and a few other examples seen around the country of Senior Night losses might indicate a need to change the rites and rituals. "Did it have a total reverse effect, did we feel the pressure, did the emotion of Senior Night, was it all too long, we showed a video for the first time? Trust me I've chopped it up, everything you can chop up. I don't have a clear answer. I wish I did."
Stansbury won't go looking at the Tennessee game tape for answers right now either, nor force his team to watch it unless there is a rematch…which would only come in Sunday's championship game. "They understand they didn't win, and this time of the year you want to wash it out of their system as fast as you can. You've got to see what is down the road for you, and what you've accomplished. You're feeling bad because of what you've done. And a lot of teams that last game didn't matter. To our team it mattered and that's positive."
Besides, for all the frustration over being outside looking in at the moment, the Bulldogs still have their chance to win a new season. Just like last year. "We have confidence," Stewart said. "We know last year we had a bench doing it in four days. We're going to have to have big minutes from our bench going into the tournament, that's important."
And a question as State's bench has not been as productive this time around. In SEC play backups have provided 15% of team scoring at most and usually less lately. Stewart and Varnado say this is the time for alternates like Phil Turner, Romero Osby, and Riley Benock to not just give them breathing-minutes but actively contribute. "Unfortunately our bench is limited," Stansbury said. "I wish we could get more out of those guys consistently. But we're not going to change what our makeup is in this last week. It would be nice, but we have to go get one first. Then your bench becomes more of a factor as you keep going."
Another potential issue is the health of point guard Dee Bost. He suffered a hip pointer in the first half of the Tennessee game and was delayed getting back for the second period getting a shot. He still managed 35 minutes with 11 points but was 4-of-11 shooting and not as active on defense. As of the press meeting Stansbury hadn't seen Bost but "I talked to the trainers and they said he was still sore yesterday. We'll see. A hip pointer is something that can sting you for a while. And in the second half you could see how he cringed on those ball screens on him."
Stewart wasn't aware of his backcourt partner's condition at the time either; in fact he was surprised at the suggestion Bost might be less than full-speed for the weekend. "That's the first I've heard of that," he shrugged. "He's our point guard and he runs the show. You may want to put me out there, you may want to put Jarvis out there, but the point guard gets you going."
Stansbury said center Elgin Bailey will have surgery Wednesday to repair the knee ligament torn two weeks ago in a practice. Bailey will not make the trip, nor will ineligible center/forward Renardo Sidney after he was officially ruled-out for this complete 2009-10 season and will be docked 30% of scheduled games for 2010-11, pending the appeal Mississippi State has filed for reduction.
Meanwhile there's much more immediate business at hand. With no new personnel to tap the Dogs are what they are, as their coach would say. And when they are on their best game this is a team to give any opponent a rough go of it. "Obviously we've got to make shots," says Stewart of State's key to tournament success. "That's something we didn't do Saturday. And we've got to play better defense. Our defense has been there most of the year but it's going to have to be consistent in the whole tournament."
"You just have to take it one game at a time," Varnado said. "We're just looking forward to getting ready to play Florida or Auburn. But you're going to need your bench to step up big. Last year the bench added-to every game we played. Our starting five cannot do it by itself, our bench is going to be a key."
All that really matters though to Stansbury is that there is another game to prepare for, starting Tuesday, and the opportunity to make another SEC Tournament run. "We have a chance," he said. "We have a chance."