SEC Hoops Preview: MSU Bulldogs

David Murray of Dawgs' Bite previews the 2007-2008 Mississippi State Bulldogs in part five of a series on SEC baskeball teams.

Starkville, Miss.--Rick Stansbury took a chance--or two--lining up an ambitious 2007-08 schedule. By booking several high-profile home dates and two West Coast road trips, he counted on having Charles Rhodes and Jamont Gordon in the lineup one more year.

When both withdrew from early NBA entry, Stansbury won that gamble.

Mississippi State kept the key pieces to a club capable of even better things than last year's 21-14 record, SEC West co-championship, and NIT semifinal appearance. These Bulldogs are ready to win their way back to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence.

Stansbury did have four veterans leave looking for larger roles elsewhere, but the core is still senior frontcourt standout Rhodes (13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game) and junior guard/forward Gordon (16.0 and 7.1). It's a versatile pair.

Rhodes scores from both the low or high post, muscling or moving, and has made himself a decent defender at last. Gordon plays the whole court as essentially a point forward banging bodies and the boards. The assist/turnover rate needs attention but Gordon's aggression creates open looks for teammates, and his outside touch has improved annually.

Rhodes and Gordon put the Bulldogs in solid position to defend the West title they shared last year, but bigger prizes depend on three sophomores stepping up to starting stature. A year's development means Barry Stewart (9.8 points) should improve on his 68 treys from last season. Ben Hansbrough (7.3, 47 treys) has the shot and smarts to be a fine combo-guard as he accepts expanded play-making responsibility. Center Jarvis Varnado blocks shots with abandon and is learning to score in other ways than just putting back missed shots.

Coach Rick Stansbury

Graduation and defections erased guard depth, so redshirt Phil Turner and newcomer Ravern Johnson won't wait long for action when Gordon must take a break. The frontcourt has more big bodies to work with, including transfer Brian Johnson. Practicing with the varsity last winter, the former Louisville center showed he was a strong rebounder, defender and post-passer, an ideal complement Rhodes and Varnado. That means 265-pound freshman Elgin Bailey can be paced, not rushed. But prep school product Kodi Augustus is too talented not to contribute at forward, possibly freeing Gordon to spend more time in the backcourt.

Certainly Stansbury, who will become State's winningest coach by December, sees pieces in place to return to championship and postseason form. "I like where our team is right now, I like our chemistry. I think we have a chance this year."

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