If anything could take MSU minds off the lingering anger that they are not part of the ongoing NCAA Tournament, it is the chance to host a ‘name' opponent. Not only that, but to entertain an Atlantic Coast Conference headliner. Not that this Tarheel team bears much resemblance to the 2009 NCAA champions of course; and both squads are playing the same alternate tournament when they're rather be elsewhere. For that matter Mississippi State is the first seed in this region and UNC the #4.
Still…"It's going to be real weird North Carolina coming in here," Varnado said. "Weird,, but a challenge. So it's going to be good."
Good enough to revive frustrated fans who as of Friday afternoon had purchased over 9,000 tickets with more expected when spring-breaking MSU students finally make belated calls to grab a limited number of their reserved ducats. "We need the Hump packed tomorrow," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "Hopefully the students will come back one day earlier, they've been a big part of what we've done all year. Come back one day and early and get an early start on tomorrow night."
Whatever the coach was intimating for post-game campus activities, the comment reflected how much more relaxed Stansbury is going into the second NIT round. This despite the fact the matchup is literally in an entirely different league. Though the Bulldogs took care of first-round foe Jackson State 81-67 it was not a sharp performance. Nor did Stansbury expect one from a team getting back on a court barely 48 hours after complete Sunday deflation by the NCAA.
"It was not just a mental challenge, it was a physical challenge. It was our fourth game in five days, and the mental part of what we came out of. We may not have been at our best but I was pleased with the way we competed." And since his team didn't leave the Hump until nearly midnight the coach gave them Wednesday off with a Thursday shootaround. "This time of year the most important part is keep guys as fresh as you can, phys and mentally." The Dogs had their first real practice since the SEC Tournament on Friday morning.
That included senior guard Barry Stewart who was in pain Tuesday night. New, ill-fitting shoes were the stated reason, but there was more involved in inflammation of tissue at the bottom of his foot. "We just finished a practice and he's OK," Stansbury said.
State needs a healthy Stewart to provide his trademark backcourt defense. Pressure will be on point guard Dee Bost to be at his ball-hawking best as well. The two top Tarheel guards are not big scorers at eight points apiece for the season, but they are an opportunistic pair with 58 treys between them . More telling is the 197 assists Larry Drew has issued, on a team that isn't particularly high-scoring. The 80 points against William & Mary in their first-round NIT win was the highest output for UNC since December 30.
Bost will need to keep Carolina's play-maker from controlling that end of the court, and Stansbury is confident. "I don't think there's been anybody Dee hasn't matched up with. I've never went into a game thinking we had a bad matchup at point guard. For the most part he's held his own against points guards. Tomorrow is no different, and I'm sure being North Carolina for Dee it will be no issue being ready."
Because, of course, State's sophomore is a native of Concord, N.C., where he was an all-state quarterback in both football and basketball. Bost did not give a Friday interview, but after Tuesday's win he was open about his motivation…after trying to say "It's just another game," which everything in his body language belied.
"I mean, I'm going to show them why they should have recruited me a little bit harder! But they're a good team, even having a down year they're a good team."
Stansbury has been careful to make that item known with his team; that this is more than just a jersey State is playing Saturday. Despite breaking even for the season with a 5-11 ACC record and first-day exit from the league tourney, North Carolina has personnel. As usual, per Stansbury, who knows something about recruiting.
"You can't look at the record and tell what they are," he said. "Five guys are still McDonald's All-Americans." Mississippi State has one but of course Renardo Sidney is sitting out the season. "They're very talented, they're very big on the back line."
And very good, led by 6-9 senior Deon Thompson with his 13.8 points and 6.3 rebounds. He's paired with 6-10 frosh John Henson and 6-6 junior forward Will Graves for a frontcourt that can hang and bang with most anyone. And that doesn't count 7-0, 240-pound soph Tyler Zeller who is coming off a foot problem. If not for his injury, and the loss of 6-10 frosh Ed Davis the last ten games as well—he could possibly return if the NIT run goes long enough—the Tarheels would be even bigger and better, and maybe even in the NCAAs again.
"They've got a real good team," said Varnado, who has to deal with the series of big-bodies UNC can throw at him. "They just had some tough losses but they're still a good team. They can beat anybody any given day."
Stansbury has obvious concerns how to handle the Tarheel back line with Varnado, for all intents and purposes, his lone true post player. Even the all-time NCAA shot blocking champ will need help and freshmen John Riek and Wendell Lewis are not yet up to that challenge. This will mean starting forward Kodi Augustus sliding into the post as he has the last two months, taking him away from the arc where he is a potential miss-match for UNC's defense. Forward Romero Osby fortunately has picked up is contributions as a scorer and gives a little added depth to work with.
But realistically this game will see Mississippi State doing what it does best: shooting three-pointers early and often while limiting what their counterparts can do at the arc. Stansbury agrees this is where the Bulldogs must make an advantage against a Tarheel team that likes life nearer the basket.
"That doesn't mean it's not good guard play," he cautions. "It's maybe not lottery-pick guard play like they've had in the past. Drew and (Dexter) Strickland are still very good guards."
The contrasting styles ought to make for a good game, too. "You have to be pumped to play them," Varnado said. "That's one of the best programs in college basketball. I know they haven't been winning a lot this year but we're still excited and pumped to play them." And, hoping for more healing in the form of extending this season beyond one high-profile matchup. Yes, Varnado repeats, there is still hurt not being in the real March madness.
"But as long as we keep playing together we're going to be very hard to beat in this tournament. As long as we show the emotion and energy and passion it's going to be had to beat us, especially now that we've got the home crowd behind us."