All bark: Bulldogs look for lost snarl against Oregon

JACKSON, Miss. &

Mississippi State loped away from the rest of the Southeastern Conference's Western Division to end the regular season. Then the Bulldogs limped out of the league tournament.

With Oregon (18-13) and the first round of the NCAA tournament just two days away, Mississippi State has to figure out what went wrong in its loss to Georgia.

"That game was definitely a wake-up call for us," point guard Jamont Gordon said. "It showed us that we can't just go into a game thinking we are going to win. We have to bring our game, too."

Gordon is a unanimous all-SEC point guard who at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds is difficult to cover and a force on defense. Power forward Charles Rhodes is considered among the league's top offensive threats. Those two are surrounded by a cadre of hard-case role players like Jarvis Varnado, the nation's top shot blocker, and Ben Hansbrough, the younger brother of North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough.

Mississippi State pushed Tennessee for the conference title over the last two weeks of the regular season.

In the tournament, however, the Bulldogs became timid. They failed to close out Alabama in regulation and escaped in tornado-delayed overtime. Then they let Georgia push them around in the semifinal. "That was the first time we've gotten out-toughed all season," Gordon said. "They kicked our butts on the backboards."

The Bulldogs' starters played most of the game, visibly tiring against Georgia. Reserves Brian Johnson, Elgin Bailey and Phil Turner played quality minutes during Mississippi State's midseason nine-game winning streak, but their playing time has diminished since.

"We didn't begin the season intending on playing our starters as long as we have, but it is what we have developed into," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "The team has adjusted well and played through the fatigue."

Nevertheless, Stansbury's starters would like to see the reserves rolling into the game a little more often against Oregon, a team stocked with four starters from last year's regional finalist.

"Other teams are bringing fresh legs in to play against us," Gordon said. "Their bench might give them four points here or a couple of rebounds there, and with our starting five playing their heart out and playing most of the game, I think it might have hurt us a little bit."

Stansbury thinks the semifinal loss was just an aberration brought on by Georgia's magical run to the league title. He thinks the team that won eight of its last 10 coming into the SEC tournament will re-emerge in Little Rock.

There's plenty of motivation, after all.

"Naturally you don't like losing games, but it's a new season," Stansbury said. "When you lose now, it's over. No more chapters to be written. Closed book."

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