By Brad Locke
TAMPA, Fla. – Rick Stansbury isn’t big on speeches.
After Mississippi State was listless in a 76-58 loss to Auburn on Feb. 28, though, Stansbury had to say something. So prior to that Monday’s practice, he shut the locker room door and kept his Bulldogs in there for nearly an hour.
But Stansbury didn’t go ballistic. That’s not his style.
He didn’t just preach at them, either. Oh, he had things to say – play together, give a better effort, and other coach-speak – but he engaged the players and solicited their input.
He asked junior Jarvis Varnado, sophomore Phil Turner and freshman point guard Dee Bost what they thought should be done to stop a slide that saw the Bulldogs lose five of six and three straight.
Once the meeting ended, the Bulldogs practiced with a renewed sense of purpose, and they closed out the regular season with wins over Florida and Ole Miss.
Heading into today’s SEC Tournament opener against Georgia, MSU is fueled by what was said in that Monday meeting.
“I feel like it impacted us a great deal for the fact when a coach comes and asks how players feel, because we’re the ones out there playing,” Turner said. “Him being as receptive as he was to us, I think that played a great part, when players feel like they have a say.”
So exactly what did the players say?
Varnado asked for more on-court enthusiasm; Turner stressed diligence in staying fit; Bost reminded everyone that there was still plenty to play for.
MSU (19-12, 9-7 SEC), the Western Division No. 3 seed, must sustain its recent level of play today against Georgia (12-19, 3-13), which finished sixth in the East. The Bulldogs of Athens are, after all, the defending SEC Tournament champions, making a Cinderella run last year after finishing last in the East.
Dennis Felton is no longer coaching the team, having been fired midseason, but interim coach Pete Herrmann said he wants Georgia to define itself by last year’s run, not this year’s struggles.
“After we finished the regular season Saturday, we talked about going down to Tampa and acting like the defending champions that we are, and to practice that way and to get ready for Thursday’s game with the idea that we’re the defending champions of the SEC Tournament,” Herrmann said. “That’s the way we’ve got to play.”
State won at Georgia, 67-61, on Jan. 24. Ravern Johnson scored all 21 of his points in the first half, but Varnado owned the second half, when he scored 12 of his 14 points.
The ability to do damage from both outside and inside is what can carry State far this weekend.
“When they’ve got going what they do well, they’re a team that’s capable of beating anybody in this league, without question,” said South Carolina coach Darrin Horn, whose Gamecocks play the MSU-Georgia winner on Friday.
Said Turner, “I think everybody’s enjoying way we’re playing lately. These last couple of games we’ve had a lot of fun.”
Brad Locke/Daily Journal