MSU No. 6 in the nation, SEC road dates on menu

Not since the days of Joe Dan Gold, Leland Mitchell and Red Stroud have the Mississippi State Bulldogs been ranked so high.<P> Mississippi State was ranked No. 6 in both The Associated Press and the USA Today-ESPN men's college basketball polls released Monday. It's the Bulldogs highest perch since finishing No. 4 in the Associated Press and United Press International following the 1961-62 campaign.

The Southeastern Conference-leading Bulldogs and self-proclaimed "Road Warriors" are coming off a solid 80-56 home win Saturday over instate rival Ole Miss. They now go back on the road for a pair of tough league encounters, traveling Wednesday to South Carolina for a 6:30 p.m. CST tip-off and Saturday to Arkansas for a Valentines' tilt at Bud Walton.

"South Carolina will be a tough test," said Mississippi State senior guard and co-captain Timmy Bowers, one of four Bulldogs scoring in double figures in the win over Ole Miss. "But we're taking 'em one game at a time to keep our focus."

No. 25 South Carolina (19-4, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) will be a tough test for the Bulldogs who've had to go up against the Gamecocks of Dave Odom before with a lot riding on the outcome.

In the midst of a five-game SEC regular season-ending win streak two years ago, the Bulldogs traveled to Columbia, S.C., to face these same dangerous Gamecocks at the Carolina Coliseum. They came away with an exhilarating, 64-57, league triumph sparked by Derrick Zimmerman, Mario Austin, Timmy Bowers, Ontario Harper, Marckell Patterson, Michal "Iggie" Ignerski, and Guy Gardner. The Dogs carried their late-season momentum into the annual SEC Tournament and on to the NCAA Midwest Regional, upsetting Alabama in the SEC Championship game at the Georgia Dome before picking up a first-round NCAA victory at American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Tex.

This campaign gets more interesting with each and every game for the league-leading Bulldogs as the importance becomes magnified in every phase - the SEC race, national rankings, positioning and seedings for the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury has been steadfast this campaign in his assessment of how difficult it is to come away with a win, especially in the well-balanced SEC.

"We're going on the road to play one of the most difficult teams in the league," he said in reference to the Bulldogs' date with a really good "Carolina" team.

The Gamecocks dropped a heart-breaker and also the SEC East lead Saturday in their last outing at Kentucky, a one-point loss, 65-64, at Rupp Arena. One of the SEC's most surprising teams, South Carolina had limited opponents to 39.9-percent shooting this season entering the Kentucky game.

Carolina's Carlos Powell and Michael Boynton had 12 points each and Renaldo Balkman, everywhere early in the contest scoring and blocking shots, had 11 points. Josh Gonner, who had 22 points in an overtime win over Alabama, Tre Kelly and Rolando Howell have given the Gamecocks a big lift.

Mississippi State (19-1, 8-1 SEC), with the win over Ole Miss, moved one step closer to a 20-win season, which would mark the fourth under Stansbury since guiding the Bulldogs to a 20-13 campaign in 1999-98, his first year at the helm in Starkville.

It was definitely a busy weekend at Mississippi State on and off the court. The Dogs completed a regular-season sweep of Ole Miss while recording their sixth straight triumph over the Rebels overall.

In an off the court gesture of appreciation, Stansbury was rewarded with a four-year contract extension through the 2007-08 season before the Dogs tip-off at The Hump before a record crowd of 10,735.

Instrumental in elevating Stansbury to the head post following the retirement of Richard Williams after the 1997-98 season, Mississippi State Athletic Director Larry Templeton confirmed the extension.

"We are showing our appreciation for the outstanding job Rick has done and for the competitive level of our program," said Templeton.

Stansbury has a 119-61 record in five-plus seasons as head coach, including a record-setting 27-8 mark in the 2001-02 season. Mississippi State won the 2002 Southeastern Conference Tournament, then followed that by capturing the SEC West crown last year.

Ironically, one day after having his contract renewed, Stansbury was in a "smoke-filled" room Saturday afternoon watching his team play on television some five minutes into the game against the Rebels.

It took the Bulldogs awhile to get adjusted to not having their head coach on the bench after he got tossed following his second technical, but once they got settled down they played like a Top 10 nationally-ranked team.

Stansbury has apologized for his actions and said he was sorry if he "offended anyone by his gestures" in the intensely-played contest.

Sparked by Bowers, the Dogs rallied to take a 31-29 halftime lead against the Rebels after trailing late in the opening stanza. The second half belonged to MSU by a wide 49-27 margin.

Stansbury said jokingly in his postgame remarks that he would not have gotten the second technical if he had known he would be in a smoke-filled office (Ron Polk's).

"I'm proud of the team for keeping their poise and composure," he said. "I put them in a tough situation but I'm very proud of them. I would like to thank my assistant coaches, too, Robert Kirby, Phil Cunningham, and Sam Weaver for a job well done."

Mississippi State placed four players in double figures paced by Lawrence Roberts, who just missed a "double-double" with 24 points and nine rebounds. Shane Power had 15 points, Bowers 14 and Winsome Frazier 12. Branden Vincent added eight points. Freshmen Gary Ervin and Dietric Slater contributed along with seven-footers Marcus Campbell and Wesley Morgan. Dennis Buse, who had a late 3-pointer, Michael Boler and Piotr Stelmach also played.

In the 1961-62 campaign, the Bulldogs raced to a 24-1 record for the second time under the legendary James Harrison "Babe" McCarthy, "SEC Coach of the Year." The Dogs reeled off 10 straight wins before dropping a 100-86 SEC decision at Vanderbilt, their lone blemish. They went on to win 14 games in a row to cap a near-perfect season, going 13-1 in the SEC while sharing the league title.

In addition to "Babe" McCarthy, some of the marquee names in MSU sports made up the 1961-62 Bulldogs: First team All-SEC picks Leland Mitchell and W.D. "Red" Stroud joined by Joe Dan Gold, later to become MSU head coach, Jack Berkshire, Bobby Shows, Gene Chatham, George Oakley, Mack Whyte and Aubrey Nichols.

The 1962-63 Bulldogs went 22-6 overall and won the SEC with a 12-2 league mark, their third straight season to win or share the conference title. MSU finished No. 4 after being ranked No. 6 the year before in the final poll.

Mississippi State's highest final ranking was No. 3 in the AP after the 1958-59 season as the Bulldogs compiled their first 24-1 mark under McCarthy.

But for the time being the emphasis for Stansbury's Mississippi State Bulldogs is on the "Carolina" Gamecocks, the next opponent at Columbia, S.C.


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 sdnsport@netdoor.com


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