March 18, 2009
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Rick Stansbury is on his game, exactly when his team may need all the intangibles it can get.
The sharp coach of 13th-seeded Mississippi State didn't waste any time trying to subvert Washington's perceived advantage of playing down the freeway from home when the Bulldogs and Huskies meet in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday.
That premise, born of the NCAA's attempt to keep top seeds close to home, is actually an offensive myth to the people of neighboring Oregon. Huskies usually don't receive a warm welcome in the Beaver State.
"We know all the Oregon people are behind us here. If you're not, get behind us!" Stansbury said Wednesday at a news conference.
Stansbury then called out a reporter from the Portland daily newspaper in the bowels of the 19,980-seat Rose Garden, which is sold out through the weekend.
"I expect to see the headline, 'Bulldogs love Ducks!' It's all on you," the folksy coach and native of Kentucky deadpanned with a straight face. "I understand Oregon folks don't like you Washington folks.
"So you Oregon folks, get ready to help us. We're going to need all the help we can get."
Maybe. Maybe not.
The Bulldogs (23-12) weren't the first team the Huskies (25-8) would have chosen to begin Washington's first NCAA tournament in three years. Mississippi State has won six straight games, the last four came in a surprising four-day romp through the Southeastern Conference tournament, while using an unorthodox lineup of four guards.
The one who isn't is the nation's leading shot blocker, Jarvis Varnado. This season, the 6-foot-9 junior with pogo sticks for legs had 165 block shots to break the SEC record he had shared with Shaquille O'Neal. He led the country with 157 last year. And in his last NCAA tournament game, a year ago, Varnado blocked five shots against a Memphis team that made it to the national championship game.
He will be a huge factor against a Washington team that relentlessly pounds the lane with entry passes to rugged star forward Jon Brockman, or with daring drives of miniature guards Isaiah Thomas, Justin Dentmon and Venoy Overton.
The Huskies are promising they won't be shy in testing the vaunted Varnado, who also leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 13.1 points per game.
"If he's down there," the 5-foot-11 Dentmon said, "best believe everyone on the team is going to go right at him."
Washington thinks attacking the rim -- Varnado's presence be darned -- is the key to getting out of its recent offensive slump. Washington won its first outright league title in 56 years almost in spite of its offense at the end of the regular season.
"I don't think we're clicking offensively right now," said coach Lorenzo Romar, who has the Huskies in their fourth NCAA tournament since he returned in 2002 to coach at the school for which he played.
"There would be no greater time for us to bounce back, playing with intensity."
Thomas -- the 5-foot-8 dynamo of a freshman guard from Tacoma, Wash., named after the NBA legend from the Detroit Pistons when his Lakers-fan father lost a bet on the NBA finals -- was 3-for-11 from the field in a win over Washington State that clinched Washington's Pac-10 title. He was 5-for-14 to begin the Pac-10 tournament against Stanford, and then 6-for-15 when the Huskies lost to Arizona State last Friday.
Dentmon has been worse. He is 9-for-29 (31 percent) in those last three games, bringing his percentage for the season down to 46.3 percent. His 15.0 points per game is second on the team to Thomas' 15.4, but Dentmon hasn't scored more than a dozen points in a game since Feb. 26.
"Too many jumpers," Dentmon said. "We've been working on that in practice the last couple days, getting back to fully attacking the rim."
The Huskies believe the Pac-10 provided them with so many varied experiences this season -- from Southern California's gimmicky man-zone defenses to the in-your-face challenges of UCLA and Washington State -- it has prepared them well for whatever the NCAA tournament brings.
But Washington's guards haven't faced a force like Varnado inside this season. Taj Gibson of USC led the Pac-10 with 92 blocks -- 73 fewer than Varnado had -- and no other conference player had more than 57.
"I think Taj Gibson is a very good shot blocker," Romar said. "But I don't think he's quite the shot blocker that this guy is."
As for the supposed advantage in geography suddenly turning against the Huskies, the anti-Washington sentiment is real in Oregon. The feelings stem largely from the so-called border war of in college football between Pac-10 rivals Oregon and Washington. They intensified in 2002, when Huskies players stomped the Ducks in Eugene -- then stomped all over the huge "O" logo at midfield after the game.
Even parking attendants here are letting their feelings known.
"As long as you aren't for Washington," one attendant said Wednesday while allowing access to a lot at the Rose Garden.
Asked if he ever lobbied so hard for fans' support at a neutral site, Stansbury laughed.
"No, but there's the first time for everything," MSU's coach said. "I'm not afraid to do it, that's for sure.
"Where were you from?"