December 8, 2009 10:09:00 AM
Danny P Smith -
STARKVILLE -- This is an important week for the Mississippi State men''s basketball team.
The Bulldogs go back on the road, but it''s not going to be an easy trip.
After taking on DePaul at the SEC/Big East Challenge in Tampa, Fla., at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, MSU will travel to Anaheim, Calif., to play UCLA on Saturday in the John R. Wooden Classic.
The Bulldogs (5-2) believe they''re ready for the challenge.
"It''s going to be a tough stretch going from one side of the country to the other, but the coaches will have us prepared," MSU senior guard Barry Stewart said.
If the Bulldogs are going to reach the NCAA tournament for a third-straight year, they know it would help to beat DePaul (5-2), UCLA (2-5) or both.
"You want to try and win as many games as you can," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said Monday. "First, you''ve got to beat DePaul and anytime you play UCLA, you know what kind of challenge that''s going to be. We set up this schedule and did it for a reason. It will make us better."
Stansbury feels his team is much better prepared than it was three weeks ago. Junior guard Riley Benock (foot) has played his way back into earning more minutes off the bench, which Stansbury said is a plus.
Does that mean he''s satisfied with what he has as this week''s trip looms?
"We''ve got somebody to go to off the bench," Stansbury said. "We may have settled in a little bit, but we''re still very unsettled."
MSU tries to stretch its winning streak in Tampa, Fla., to five games.
The Bulldogs won four consecutive games to capture the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship last season in the St. Pete Times Forum.
Stansbury would like nothing better than to continue that success against DePaul.
"Our kids have been there and won championships," Stansbury said. "That''s something we''ll try to use however we can use it, but it''s a different situation and different team. It''s Big East against SEC. It will be a tournament atmosphere even though it''s a one-game deal, and playing against somebody you don''t get to play against, so all of that''s positive."
The University of Mississippi played host to Southern Miss in Oxford Saturday and the question was raised to USM coach Larry Eustachy about scheduling MSU.
Eustachy doesn''t believe the Bulldogs are as open to the idea as the Rebels were.
"If we could get Mississippi State to do it in basketball, then that would be great," Eustachy said. "(Ole Miss coach) Andy (Kennedy) seems to be a little more comfortable in himself than ol'' what''s-his-name."
When asked to respond to Eustachy''s comment, Stansbury didn''t appear to be concerned and scheduling a game against the Golden Eagles was the least of his worries.
"I can''t control that," Stansbury said. "I don''t know Larry, but I''m always going to make decisions on scheduling what''s best for our program."
MSU beat Southern Miss 75-68 in the 2001 National Invitational Tournament in Starkville, the last time the schools met. The last on-campus meeting between the schools was 1996, a 72-69 overtime victory by MSU in Hattiesburg.
If and when the Bulldogs play the Golden Eagles again, MSU in-state players like Ravern Johnson, of Lyon, won''t treat it as anything special.
"I just look at them as another game," Johnson said. "With most of the guys being from Mississippi, maybe I have played against them, but I just look at it as another game."
Senior center Jarvis Varnado plans to practice this week even though he hurt the dislocated pinkie finger on his left hand hurt again Saturday.
Varnado planned to wear more protection and have it taped more so he can practice.
"It shouldn''t pop out anymore," Varnado said. "I should be able to practice the full time this week."
Stansbury hopes to have Varnado at full speed and that he won''t have any lingering problems with his hand.
"Last week was a big concern when he wasn''t able to practice and we ran him to death," Stansbury said. "He may decide it''s better to practice than run on the sideline. It''s something that''s going to bother him, but we''ll let it heal up he best we can and use him where we can. If he''s able to go, we''ll need him."