Well, precisely as Clapton moaned the concluding words “I believe I’m sink-ing downnn…” my (good) front tires reached the Hwy. 45-A overpass. Coincidence? You tell me.
OK, so when Robert Johnson composed his self-mythologizing anthem he was singing of another ‘Crossroads’ clear on the other side of our state. But I think it’s still a fair reference to tip off a column with. And besides, Bulldogs of the generations who know Ginger Baker was not a character on Gilligan’s Island also recall various deals with the devil made at the old crossroads of 82 and 45. No, no need to tell your current spouse or the kids, and I’d think statutes of limitations should apply by now, right?
As patience among readers who don’t care for classic rock or editorial ramblings may be wearing thin about now, yes, there is a segue here into Mississippi State basketball. Couple of ‘em in fact. In the aftermath of that fiasco in Tuscaloosa, these Bulldogs find themselves at a crossroads of their own. And, if Lucifer were to drop by The Hump this week, it’s a safe bet that some folk would sell—or at least lease for a couple months—their souls for a tall, athletic, guard who can shoot the three and defend the wing.
Barring supernatural supplementation, though, Rick Stansbury and State can only keep playing with their current roster. It’s still a respectable one, strong enough—I believe—to remain in the upper ranks of the SEC West and definitely strong enough to have a sizable say in who wins both Division and league. And, if the schedule plays out as it ought, to earn one of the six or so bids the NCAA will award our conference.
At the same time, though, last night’s blowout at Alabama reveals just how wrong things can go for this ball club. It also hints that if the Bulldogs let a lopsided loss linger in their heads and doubts seep into their hearts, it is entirely possible this team could take the wrong fork at this early-season crossroads. Which would be an infernal turn of events indeed.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Alabama played about as well as they are capable last night. Maybe better. I say that because the reactions of Tide players during the first half, and their post-game comments, showed how surprised—shocked, even—they were at how the game developed. Oh, they knew Mississippi State was not at full-strength, and that given the backcourt matchups (mis-matchups, really) the Bulldogs were ripe for the taking. Alabama clearly expected to win; they had no idea a rout was in the making.
Equally obvious was that the Bulldogs were no longer the same confident club of previous road trips. There was a pre-game tension in warm-ups I just didn’t like. It was as if instead of building on a home win over Arkansas, they were thinking back to Tennessee. Not the staff, no. Whatever one chooses to think about Stansbury, the man has never lacked confidence going into a game or a season. He prepared to win this one.
But he can’t line up players who aren’t in uniform. And of all the West teams State needs Frazier to defend, Alabama tops the list. A win is still far from certain with him chasing Earnest Shelton as Alabama has other options. But without him, well, you saw…or you saw as much as you wished before changing channels. I had to observe the whole massacre in-person. The only positive was that I could essentially write the game story by halftime and fill in the numbers and quotes later.
And by the way, what must Arkansas be thinking after watching a team that beat them by 35 points lose by 49? How was that a four-point game in Fayetteville last week?
Actually, that fact should be useful as Stansbury addresses the troops today. It’s a reminder that final margins don’t mean much, only the final result matters. If the Bulldogs pull themselves together and take care of business a 49-point whipping will mean no more than the previous week’s one-point shortcoming. But, that’s only if the players handle themselves correctly in coming days.
And along those lines, we should be thankful the Bulldogs have to get ready for another game. Ideally they would be playing tomorrow or the next day, giving less time for mulling over Tuesday. But a weekend game ought to be sufficient for the emotional/psychological situation, and playing at home a further help. Then the Dogs can take a full midweek break to catch a breath, while Stansbury and staff can have some much-needed time to assess the team’s status, the remaining schedule, and search for any, ANY possible ideas in terms of lineups and rotations.
Not that there are many obvious options at off-guard. Think offensively first: State has no true jump-shooter left. Not if you’re asking for a guy who can make a perimeter shot while defended, a la Frazier or Timmy Bowers. Jamaal Edmondson has range but his stature means he must be open; Shane Power needs space to get his jumper off, too. Heck, right now Lawrence Roberts might be the best bet to take the long J from top of the key in a crunch. If I’m playing State this year, I’m in a zone defense until the Dogs force me to change with interior passing. Or, unless the NCAA changes rules to allow Stansbury to ‘call up’ Monta Ellis for the second half of the season.
Defensively, the staff has tried several approaches and none provide what Frazier did, or at least not against opponents that can attack inside or out with equal efficiency. Certainly there’s not a Dog available to check either a red-hot Shelton or a tall, explosive Kennedy Winston, much less both. So how’d State shut down Arkansas? Well, for all their shooting prowess, Hogs like Ron Brewer and Johnathan Modica can be guarded up-close without as much fear of a dribble-drive, since UA doesn’t have a big-scoring post game yet. And if the Tennessee game was re-played now I do think it would turn out more favorably to State.
The point here is that Mississippi State is now short a player who, with his combination of physical skills and winning experience, made the difference between a sure championship contender and a team that now not only will have to scramble to stay in striking distance of the new Division leader but will need help along the way to keep pace. I’m not saying the Bulldogs cannot win the West now; I am saying this short-handed squad has no margin left for error, and can’t do it all on their own.
It’s not their fault; this is merely a reminder of what, for most programs, is inherent in the 13-scholarship limit. A single injury or academic loss turns a title team into a challenger; and a challenger into a also-ran. Mind, Frazier is not the most damaging loss this team could have taken. Remove Roberts and State is very average; take away Gary Ervin and this is a mid-pack squad. Frazier, or equally Power, are the added parts that made it a frontrunner.
The Bulldogs can and will still win more SEC games with this lineup. It’s just that the margins are abruptly gone in matchups with, say, LSU and Vanderbilt. Those games are now toss-ups, and contests with lesser foes are far more uncertain if somebody on the other side happens to get hot that night. And you can bet shooters all across the league are salivating after seeing the stats from last night.
We can’t worry about what foes figure now. The Bulldogs have to take care of themselves and not carry any 49-point monkey (man, what a mangled metaphor) around on their collective backs. For that matter, by next week State might not even be toting around a ranking, which in a strange way might be a relief. This is a different team in all sorts of ways, a squad that at mid-season suddenly has to figure itself out, discover how all the parts can best be fitted together, and make the best of the situation.
And honestly, their best can still be pretty darn good. There are 11 league games left and the Bulldogs are entirely capable of winning more than their share, of staying near the top of this Division, and being in a position to profit if things should unexpectedly turn sour for the frontrunner…not that we’d wish ill-luck on our regarded rivals, of course. (Hope everybody has a ticket for March 5 at The Hump.)
Then there is tournament time to look forward to, if the Dogs keep their poise and take care of business. I’m not letting myself think too much about the potential return of Frazier by then; if it happens and he’s able to play, great for him and us alike. Otherwise, it’s best to plan to play with the guys still in uniform. Which, by the way, Charles Rhodes was wearing in Tuscaloosa last night. As he’s over the 20% games/half season limit it’s a very long and unlikely shot that he could get a retroactive redshirt, but we’ll see what the staff has in mind. I’m more interested in how Stansbury revamps his rotation in the low post, and whether Walter Sharpe can be an offensive boost here. There are some upcoming teams the rookie center could be a big help with, to my mind.
So, a day later and with the sun shining, we can still think about better things ahead on Hwy. 2005. If, that is, the Bulldogs take the right turn at this particular season’s crossroads. Because otherwise in a few week, well, as R.Johnson also sang, we could all feel as if we really did have a hellhound on our trail.