Although celebrating the 2003 Southeastern Conference Western Division championship, their first division banner since back-to-back title runs in the mid-1990's, the Bulldogs to every member of the team along with thousands of fans across the country felt the Maroon and White could have gone much further in the postseason.
Nationally-ranked all season long, the Bulldogs again marched into the prestigious NCAA playoffs, and as more than one Mississippi State official agreed, it could have been a much more rewarding campaign with a few breaks. It was still a banner campaign, one that included a "net-cutting" ceremony, capped by the last strands being snipped by crowd-favorite Derrick "Z" Zimmerman.
Mississippi State Athletic Director Larry Templeton came about as close as anyone to describing the "near-miss" in the SEC title game against Kentucky which would have given the Bulldogs a repeat in the SEC Tournament Championship game in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
"I think we may have been, maybe one basket away, from winning the SEC Tournament again," said Templeton of Stansbury's 2002 tourney champions who battled Kentucky down to the final seconds in the title match.
Templeton noted the Dogs have compiled a splendid 48-18 record the past two title-winning campaigns while Mississippi State was one of only 22 schools to send both its men and women to the NCAA Tournament.
The architect of Mississippi State's rapid rise to the upper echelon, of not only the SEC, but of college basketball, Templeton praised the diligent work and contributions of several MSU icons - the "Voice of the Bulldogs" for a half century Jack Cristil, who gave the welcome and the "warm" closing remarks, newly-installed President Dr. Charles Lee and head basketball coach Rick Stansbury, who has guided the Dogs to back-to-back NCAA appearances on the heels of the NIT quarterfinals.
Dr. Lee applauded an "outstanding" group of players, coaches and support staff. Speaking of the 2002-03 hoop squad, Lee said "you are Mississippi State" and we appreciate so much your representation of this university in the best possible way.
There's no question that Stansbury has accomplished so much in a short period of time with perhaps greater horizons to reach. Basketball is back at MSU without a doubt.
At ease behind the podium or on the sidelines, Stansbury applauded the loyalty of everybody from his coaching staff - Robert Kirby, Phil Cunningham, and Sam Weaver - to the players and and their parents, the fans and "Rick's Rowdies" the newest additions to The Hump where it has become increasingly "more difficult" for opposing teams to play in recent campaigns.
Ready to undertake his fifth campaign this fall in Starkville, Stansbury said he couldn't thank the fans enough nor the "energy and enthusiasm" Rick's Rowdies have brought to the Hump. He thanked Dr. Lee, Larry Templeton for their support, Jack Cristil, Mark White, Dr. Glen Ellis, Toni Black, David Rosinski for their hard work and Richard Akins, strength and conditioning.
Stansbury pointed out his wife Meo, "great fan, wonderful wife and mother," was one of the Bulldogs "biggest and most vocal supporters" anywhere joined by sons Isaac and Noah.
One of the highlights of the evening was the showing of a video reel put together by veteran Bennie Ashford, long a loyal member of the Mississippi State family.
Showcasing the seniors led by two-time All-SEC guard Derrick "Z" Zimmerman, who had a team-high four individual awards, and forward Michal "Iggy" Ignerski (Most Improved Defender & Rebounding), along with Mario Austin (Best Offensive & Rebounding Award), Timmy Bowers (Most Improved), Winsome Frazier (Free Throws), Ontario Harper, and Wesley Morgan (Academic Award). Howell accepted the "Bailey Howell Rebounding Award" plaque in the absence of Austin.
There were many highlights during the season - wins over Top 10-ranked Oklahoma at New Orleans, and over Top 20-ranked Xavier at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Bulldogs posted a perfect 3-0 record against instate rival Ole Miss, the first time that had been accomplished in nearly 60 years.
Mississippi State (21-10) sewed up the SEC West title on the final day of the regular season, edging out Auburn with an impressive 67-45 win over the Plainsmen before a packed house at The Hump, a scene often seen in Starkville.
Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org