With all the things you have achieved in your five years at State, do you feel added pressure to win?
"It's not pressure, we have expectations in our program. That's what, as a player and coach, you work and strive for. I have said many times that there will not be more expectations from outside this program than what I put on myself and this team."
Is your program at the same point as your expectations after five years on the job as the head coach?
"There is no question that we are reaching those expectations. The last two years we have won two championships. We won an SEC Tournament Championship the year before last. We won a Western Division Championship this year. We went to the finals of the SEC Tournament back to back; the first time in school history. There is only one team in this league that has won more games in the last two years and that's Kentucky. They've won 54 and we've won 48. Over the last five years, there is only one team that has won more SEC Tournament games. Kentucky is 9-2 and we are 7-4. When you look at those things, there is no question that we are reaching some of our goals.
"(However) my philosophy is not to just reach them, but to keep doing them. And that is what we will continue to strive doing."
That goes right into my next question about your signing class. To continue competing on that level you have to sign top-notch players. This past recruiting season you went from the outhouse at the beginning of the summer to the penthouse at the end of the summer.
"We went from the penthouse to the outhouse. We went from the penthouse when I had Mario (Austin) coming back and Travis (Outlaw) and (Wojciech Barycz) coming in. Then, I went to the outhouse (when we lost all three of them)."
What I'm getting at is you went from having a great recruiting class, to losing three of the five in that class if you include Jackie Butler, back to having what some would consider a very good class.
"Let me say this: There is no one in the country that lost more to the draft than us. We are the only team in America that lost two underclassmen to the pros. Actually, people forget that we also lost the kid from Poland to the pros, so we lost three to the pros. He signed with the best team in Europe. Then, we also had Derrick Zimmerman get drafted. No one took more of a hit than we did. We had our program in shape with all these kids coming back and coming in, but we lost two in June, Travis (Outlaw) and (Wojciech) Barycz. With Mario and those guys, we were set to be one of the best teams in the country. You don't recover from that. You especially don't recover from it in July and August. It's impossible."
But you didn't just sit back and not do anything after losing those guys.
"That's right. We had an opportunity to sit back and have an excuse for not being successful. It was the perfect time to have an excuse. This was the year where we didn't have to have expectations, but that's not an approach we ever want. I always have high expectations for this program every year no matter what the circumstances are.
"Fortunately for us, it's not often that you can pick up a player of Lawrence Roberts' status in August. He is a proven player from a proven league. He brings instant credibility to where we needed help.
"People want to know how we got him, how we sold him (on MSU). There was no sell to it. It was just showing him. No one could show him a better opportunity than we had on the inside because of what we lost. He also wanted to go somewhere where he could win championships. We showed him the two rings from the last two years of winning championships. He wanted to play in a great league. We are in the SEC, the number 1 RPI league in the country. And, we had his grandparents in Gulfport and his (other) grandparents in New Orleans. We tied all that together. While he was here, he cancelled his visits to Arizona and Indiana because this was where he felt at home. There is no question that we are a great fit for him and there is no question that he is a great fit for us."
One thing you may have left out is how family oriented your teams have always appeared to be. And with him coming from a Baylor program that was in disarray to your type team must have helped him make his decision to sign with Mississippi State.
"There is no question that is a major part in (recruiting) every kid that we bring in, but his situation was different. Because of what he had been through, he liked the peacefulness, the togetherness and the family atmosphere that we have.
"To tie my family into it; my wife, children and I were in Roanoke, Virginia when this broke. When we figured we had an opportunity to recruit him, I flew back. And to show you how family oriented it was, my wife wanted to be here on the visit. I knew it was important for her to be here, but I wasn't going to make her come off vacation. But she wanted to be here to cook for him while he was on his official visit. And she drove the kids back 14 hours just to be here for Lawrence on that visit."
Did getting him in for his first visit play a big part in him choosing Mississippi State?
"I think he made the first visit based on what he knew about our program. It wasn't us telling him to take the first visit. Everybody tried to get him in first. I think after he evaluated everything, Mississippi State was the first program that we wanted to see. Everything a player would look for, we could show him: Opportunity to play, winning, putting guys in the NBA, graduating guys - the whole package. We are the only school in America to have three guys get drafted. We were the only school to have two underclassmen to sign pro. So all we had to do was show him what we had. He could also see good perimeter people around him. He knew Timmy Bowers from playing with him at Colorado Springs. He knew Shane (Power) from his Iowa State days. He had heard about Gary Ervin. So, he felt very comfortable with our perimeter players."
What kind of player is he?
"I don't have all the answers about him, but I've watched him on film. I think he is a combination of all of it. I told Lawrence on his visit that he didn't play hard all the time. He did that and still had great stats. When you average 16 points and 10 or 11 rebounds in that league, you have some good numbers. I saw him get 28 (points), 20 (rebounds) against Texas Tech on film. That is a pretty good team to get it against. I told him our job is to get him to play harder and tougher every possession. If we do that, then we are going to improve those stats. But the thing we have to work with is his great ability. He is a great athlete with a lot of quickness. He is a great leaper. I think he has the ability to go over the top of you and not around you to get to the hole. I think he is really good on the block and away from the block, but he also has the ability to step away from the hole and makes some shots."
You've talked to the media about your guard signees, Slater and Ervin. Anything new with either of them?
"I don't know anymore about them than I did before. Gary (Ervin) did have an operation on his hand. He's had a cast on for five weeks. We have been told that he will be ready for practice."
Another guy you signed was Piotr Stelmach. What kind of player is he?
"I was scrambling to get bodies. I basically had 10 scholarship players at the end of June, really 9. (Michael) Boler was put on scholarship, so that made 10. But I only had two bodies on the inside, Branden Vincent and Marcus Campbell. You can't count Wesley Morgan because he had another knee surgery and he hasn't played yet. We were just trying to get bodies to practice and compete with. We weren't trying to find All-Americans and great players. You aren't going to find All-Americans or great players in July and August consistently. But we like this young man because he does have ability. He is an 18-year old high school kid who is 6-9, 230. He was the number one student at his high school. I think he is all ears and eyes from the standpoint of wanting to listen and learn. He is an average athlete, but I think he is helped by having a good basketball IQ. I like what Piotr can be in time, but he is an 18-year old kid right now."
How did you find out about him?
"He was on the same team with (Wojciech Barycz) the kid we signed earlier. We knew about him from that standpoint. We kind of liked him after watching him on tape, but we knew we couldn't take him early because we had Mario (Austin), Travis (Outlaw) and (Wojciech) Barycz. It wasn't until June, when we lost Travis and Barycz, that we had scholarships. That's when we went to work. (Assistant coach) Phil (Cunningham) did a great job with the paperwork and getting him in here on time. That was an everyday job."
Talk about Terry Licorish, your last signee.
"We don't know a whole lot about him to be honest with you. We really haven't seen him play much. There are a lot of question marks about him and what he is. I know he has size and a body that will allow him to practice and compete. How good he is? I don't have the answer to that, yet. Because he hasn't played ball much the past two years, the questions will be can he handle the discipline and regiment that he will have to deal with in this program, including early morning workouts, 6 a.m. breakfast, going to class, going to study hall, lifting weight, going through conditioning. It will be interesting to see if he can handle that. If he can, then I think Terry has some potential.
"Terry and Piotr are two guys that we took because we needed bodies. The verdict is still out on them."
Are all five of these players on scholarship?
"That is five scholarships."
With the way the scholarships are set up over a two-year period that means you will have 3 to give this recruiting season. Will you be able to apply for an exemption this recruiting season so that you can give more than 3 scholarships if needed?
"We'll try to. There are a lot of ways you can get an exemption."
You mentioned that Gary Ervin and Wesley Morgan had surgery. Have any of your other players had surgery? And will all of those guys be ready by the season?
"I wish I had the answer to that. Shane (Power) had knee surgery in December. He hasn't played at all. He is not ready. Gary Ervin is still in a cast. Wesley Morgan had surgery three or four weeks ago. I don't know if everybody will be ready. Hopefully, Gary Ervin will be ready. Shane and Wesley, I don't know about them."
How will this team be different than last year's team?
"We have a brand new team. We have two players returning who were starters. We have (three) other guys returning who came off the bench. Then, we have some new pieces. This team has a lot of parts and pieces that we have to put together as a team in a very short amount of time. We don't have the experience coming back this year that we had coming back last year. That is going to be the challenge for this team."
With the three guys you added the past few weeks, do you like your chances much better?
"I liked my team before, but I just didn't have any depth on the inside. I liked my perimeter game. I liked Branden (Vincent) and (Marcus) Campbell. Now, with Lawrence Roberts, we picked up some depth."
Last year, all of your guys, including the newcomers, were on campus throughout the summer. This year, three of them just came in. That didn't allow them to bond like last year's guys did.
"There's no question about that. Three just came in and we had two guys who couldn't do anything this summer, Gary Ervin and Shane Power. They were here but they couldn't work in the weight room and conditioning where things get tough and guys bond."
Talk a little about this year's schedule.
"We have some tough games here. Xavier will be a top 15 team. UAB went to the finals of their tournament and have everybody back. Plus, they had a great recruiting year. We have to go to Western Kentucky where they have won 44 straight home games. They will be a top 25 team. We are back in the Sugar Bowl again, which was great for us last year. We had a great contingent of Bulldog people there. We will play Tulane. LSU will play UAB. We have a home game against South Alabama. We will be on the road at Little Rock. We are still trying to finish up one game. We are waiting on an exempt tournament. These people won a court case about a month ago, but the NCAA trys to get a stay on it and that goes through courts another month. Everybody is like us, they have been holding for one game the last two months. Now, the NCAA has put a stay on the rule, which doesn't allow you to play in a exempt tournament. So, we are trying to scramble to find one game."
You have built this program into a top 25 caliber program. Are you trying to get teams like your own team on your schedule? Teams like Xavier and maybe even teams like Indiana?
"No question. We think our program is to the point where we can compete with the best and we want to play against the best. Doing that only makes you better."
Have you tried to get more pre-season top tier type teams on your schedule on a home and home basis?
"We try to go to those teams every year, but very few of them want to come to Starkville, Mississippi (and play Mississippi State). They have nothing to gain by coming here. Why do they want to go to Mississippi State and play when they have a tough league and they are trying to get wins in non-conference? It's not going to happen. Xavier was made to come here because of the tournament last year. That was part of the tv deal in Madison Square Garden last year. It was a home and home after that with them coming here first. I can understand their philosophy. Why come to Mississippi State? Everybody in those big leagues want to get as many non-conference wins as they can. There is nothing to gain by coming to Starkville and playing us. They would just assume play a home game with somebody else."
Couldn't you get them by guaranteeing a lot of money?
"You aren't going to get those type teams on guarantee money. They are not about money in non-conference games. They are not going anywhere for money. They don't play guarantee games. They may go to a tournament somewhere where a tournament pays them, but the Indianas don't go anywhere like a South Alabama or a Louisiana Monroe would."
What about Memphis?
"Memphis won't play us. We have tried them over and over."
My last question. To continue being a top 25 type program, what facilities would you like to see improved?
"I think we have really changed the atmosphere here at the Hump the last five years, but we have to continue to make it better. The big thing is we need a Jumbotron. I also want to change some seating around the floor so that we can get more students around the floor. It is very obvious how the Rowdies have added to the atmosphere of the Hump. I want to have that all around that floor. I want to get those students on the floor because they are the ones who create excitement and enthusiasm. Those are the two big changes that we need in the Hump. And our people have to continue to purchase tickets. We set an all-time SEC attendance record last year, but we have to continue to build on that. We also have to do it in November and December and not just January, February and March. Sometimes I think we don't think basketball starts until January, but it starts in November. We need our people in those seats in November because it means so much to our team. I can guarantee you that our fans have played a big part in the two championships that we have won. Every fan who was at those home SEC games last year were a part of history. They helped to set an all-time attendance record."
Has the MSU athletic department done a financial feasibility study on how much it would cost to put a Jumbotron in the Hump?
"We are in the process of working on that now so that we can get it done."
To finance it, will you have to have a big donor?
"We are working on that, too. We are working on somebody to help us with that."
This last question is pretty personal, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Ole Miss head basketball coach Rod Barnes recently was awarded a raise and an extension on his contract. The coach at Florida was also given a huge raise. What is your contract status at this time?
"I'm not going to get into details on my contract. I will say that I have confidence in (MSU) President Lee and (MSU Athletic Director) Larry Templeton to always do the right thing."
Have a great Bulldog week!
Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. The URL for Gene's Page is http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com. You can contact him by emailing email@example.com.