If this past week was any indication, things could get worse before they get better.
The Bulldogs were already struggling at 11-5 overall and 1-2 in the SEC when coach Rick Stansbury dismissed enigmatic sophomore forward/center Walter Sharpe along with redshirt freshman forward Jerrell Houston for the always nebulous "violation of team rules."
"Walter and Jerrell have both been dismissed from the Mississippi State basketball team," Stansbury said in a statement that proved to be his only public reaction to the news. "Both young men are good people, but unfortunately things just didn't work out for them here. We wish them both well in their future endeavors."
Just one week after meeting as a team to discuss Sharpe's chronic lack of responsibility and deciding to give Sharpe one more chance, the Bulldogs then followed Stansbury's announcement by losing 71-57 at home to LSU and 80-52 at Vanderbilt.
"It's hard for us right now," junior Dietric Slater said. "But I think eventually, we're going to come through this all right."
For now, the rest of the SEC is probably pointing at Stansbury and telling him "we told you so."
When SEC schools recruited Sharpe out of Birmingham's Parker High School, the recruiting process turned suspicious on several fronts. Sharpe appeared to be ready to choose between Alabama and UAB when Mississippi State jumped into the picture late, hoping to replace the possible loss of center Lawrence Roberts to the NBA.
Then, two days before Sharpe was expected to choose between Mississippi State and Alabama at a press conference, Alabama coach Mark Gottfried not only withdrew his scholarship offer, but he made sure Alabama media knew about the withdrawal. Soon after, UAB coach Mike Anderson backed off as well, leaving Alabama and UAB fans to wonder what had happened.
With the way Alabama and UAB retreated from Sharpe, rumors quickly spread about the involvement of Sharpe's mother and accusations of improper recruiting flew around the Internet. Mississippi State fans accused Alabama of jealousy and insisted Gottfried was simply trying to save face after losing an in-state recruiting prospect to an out-of-state program.
Sharpe offered signs of potential as a freshman but he also proved to be erratic on and off the court. He played in 22 games as a reserve and averaged 8.9 minutes and 2.4 points per game, but he also missed 11 of 24 games in 2004-05, mostly due to suspensions. Sharpe missed the team plane for a game against Arizona in Anaheim, Calif., in December. Then in March he missed practice the day before the team left to play in the NCAA Tournament and was not allowed to accompany the team to Charlotte.
Sharpe talked about transferring following the season, withdrew from Mississippi State at one point in the spring semester and almost left the program for good over the summer. When he decided to return he was no longer eligible and had to miss the first seven games of the season. Sharpe finally completed enough hours to return to the court on December 10, giving the coaches some reason to hope he was ready to grow up.
Instead, he missed three games for team rule violations and played in only six games, averaging 9.3 points and 5.0 rebounds before he got a late start returning from Birmingham to Starkville on the Monday before the LSU game. He called the basketball office to tell the coaches he would be late to practice but was instead told he didn't need to bother. He was off the team.
"It was coming," Sharpe told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "Everything happens for a reason. Hopefully, I can go somewhere better for me."
Unfortunately for Sharpe, Disney World doesn't have a basketball team. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they don't have a very good SEC team. That was abundantly evident against LSU and Vanderbilt, even when Stansbury made some lineup changes to put a more veteran team on the court, starting guard Jamall Edmondson at the point ahead of freshman Reginald Delk for the first time since Dec. 21. Stansbury indicated he is hoping the team's few experienced players will be able to pull the team together.
"That's something you've got to be conscious of," Stansbury said. "This stretch ... would not be easy for a lot of teams, particularly a young team still trying to figure out its point guard play."
The situation isn't going to get any easier when the Bulldogs (11-7, 1-4 SEC) put their four-game losing streak on line against Tennessee at home on Wednesday or at Alabama on Saturday, but the Bulldogs are not without their positives.
For one, they are abundantly young, with five freshmen and sophomores among their top nine remaining scorers. Plus, the dismissal of Sharpe and Houston also opened up two more scholarships.
"You're always looking for good players, because you never know what is going to happen," Stansbury said. "You have to be prepared if you lose a player."
How many men's basketball teams in the SEC can be trusted right now? Count them ... go ahead ... one? Two? Three? You can start with Auburn (0-4 SEC) and count on the Tigers to be the worst team in the SEC, but then it gets more difficult.
The SEC went into the week with one other trustworthy team carrying the conference banner as the nation's No. 2 team, but Florida failed to hold up its end.
Perhaps we should have seen this one coming when the Gators struggled with Auburn for more than 30 minutes before beating the Tigers 69-57 at home last week. Then Florida beat lowly Savannah State 113-62 in a game that improved its record to 17-0 but probably didn't help the Gators stayed grounded.
Florida coach Billy Donovan has gone out of his way to try to keep the Gators from getting carried away with their success, even telling the media time and time again that his team should be ranked somewhere around about 15th, not second.
Another sign of trouble came last week when Florida senior Adrian Moss lamented the SEC's struggles and its possible impact on the Gators.
"Nothing we can do about it," Moss told the Gainesville Sun. "We're in the SEC. If we could move to the Big Ten, we would. If we could move to the ACC, we would. But we're in the SEC and that's where we're going to try to win games."
Then on Saturday, with No. 1 Duke losing at Georgetown and Florida poised to take over the top spot in the polls for the third time in school history, the Gators lost 80-76 at Tennessee.
"It hurts, because you really want to win every game you play," forward Al Horford told the Gainesville Sun. "It sucks, losing. We just have to look at the things that we did wrong and make corrections. It's not like it's the end of the season. It's just one loss."
The Gators could also lose sophomore wing Corey Brewer to a sprained right ankle. He was able to score 10 of his 20 points after suffering the injury late in the first half but ankle injuries have a tendency to get worse before they get better.
"When I looked at it, I thought it was pretty serious," Donovan said. "That's something that we'll have to be careful with. We have an off-day (Sunday) and then we'll re-evaluate it."
Despite Brewer's sprained ankle, the loss could be the best thing to happen to Florida right now. It's only January and every good team needs a reminder of how hard it is to win now and then. Just ask Duke.
"We had won 17 games, but going into tonight we were 0-0," Donovan said. "I knew Duke had lost, but these are different guys. They are more wrapped up in trying to become a good team, to become better individually and really sacrifice for one another.
"We played great tonight, we really did. They gave me everything I could possibly want. I am really proud of the way our team responded here. This was the toughest road environment we faced all season."
So, back to the original question: who do you trust?
Kentucky? The Wildcats lost three consecutive games before beating Georgia and South Carolina in the past week. They also had to beat the Gamecocks at the buzzer – at home.
Ole Miss? The Rebels were 3-0 in the SEC before losing at Georgia on Saturday and it's still difficult to imagine the Rebels winning the West.
Vanderbilt? The Commodores followed an impressive win at Kentucky with an unimpressive loss at Arkansas, and then lost at home to South Carolina last week?
Alabama? The Crimson Tide is what it is without injured star Chuck Davis – a scrappy team fighting for life in the SEC, but that wasn't enough at LSU on Saturday.
Arkansas? The Razorbacks finally won on the road on Saturday, but they won at Auburn. That hardly counts as a big win.
Tennessee? The Florida win was definitely impressive, but it followed two consecutive road losses to LSU and Memphis.
LSU? When did the Tigers sneak up and turn 4-0 in the SEC? With all the talk about Florida's rise, Kentucky's demise and Ole Miss' demise, it's been all too easy to miss LSU's strong start in the SEC, especially with sophomore guard Tack Minor sidelined with an injury.
One week after beating Tennessee at home the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide with defense, rebounding and strong bench play, and that's a combination that will give any team a chance to win, especially in an SEC where it seems few teams can be trusted to be at their best on a consistent basis.
"We picked up our defensive pressure," senior guard Darrel Mitchell said. "We got going in the defensive end. Offense will come to us when we start getting stops and turnovers."
Want to buy a coach? After Kentucky lost 68-64 at home to Alabama last week, a frustrated Kentucky fan tried to sell Kentucky coach Tubby Smith on eBay. A seller using the name "tayprincetheman" offered Smith to the highest bidder and drew 21 bids with a high offer of $2,025 by the end of the day before the auction was closed.
No word yet on any bids coming from desperate athletics directors.
SCOTT: Who can be trusted?
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