It certainly was easy for Stansbury to smile and joke on an August Saturday, even to the point of telling Commissioner Mike Slive not to send Karl Hess to officiate any more MSU home games. That's how relaxed the coach felt. After all, his 2005 Bulldogs don't begin team practices for seven more weeks, and the season is a month more beyond. So the State coach and returning players—two of which, seniors Lawrence Roberts and Shane Power—could bask a bit longer in the afterglow of their championship season.
A glow made even brighter by Roberts' presence, not so much at the meeting as just on the roster. Stansbury might have been hard-pressed to say which summer day was bigger for him; the June 17 announcement by Roberts that he was coming back to campus for a senior season, or the July 3 birth of third son Luke. If it means anything, the coach did mention that first item first as wife Meo watched.
"It was a long June for me!" the coach joked. "That (NBA) fax machine had about ten minutes left on it! But no question he is one of the best college players returning for this year, the only John Wooden team player returning. He will be preseason, first-team all-America and in some people's minds maybe the preseason Player of the Year."
Not maybe, definitely. As reigning SEC Player of the Year he will make everyone's preseason all-star teams and be atop most of them. And at times Roberts drew more attention than even Coach Sylvester Croom from well-wishers. In fact, when the football coach later ran down his own position changes in fall camp, he added "One thing we haven't done is move Lawrence Roberts to tight end." Upon which Croom turned to glance, hopefully, at the forward/center.
Roberts is quite content to stay with his winter job, and seems to have no regrets over his last-hour decision to return for a senior year in college. "I just want to thank everyone," Roberts said, "it's been a blessing to be part of a great family in a great conference. I can't guarantee you guys victory, but one thing I can do is guarantee that Shane and I and the team will work hard to continue to make you proud."
Power, another transfer who took the long route to Mississippi State, echoed the same sentiment. "I just want to express how grateful we are to be a part of the Bulldog program. It's a great place to get your degree (Power already has his), a great place to play, a great place to live, a great place to eat!" This, a reminder of the squad's relentless battle to keep the pounds down and stay in playing shape.
Mississippi State has also become a pretty darn good basketball program, and Stansbury did not waste the public opportunity to point out just how good. MSU is the only league team with a three-year string of unshared SEC titles: the 2002 Tournament, the '03 Western Division, and then this past year's undisputed Conference regular-season crown, State's first in 41 years. Stansbury added that only Kentucky has more total victories than State over the past four seasons.
Closer to home, Stansbury has a 28-12 record in six seasons against traditional rivals Alabama, LSU, and Mississippi. And, just for the sake of some welcome Rebel-rousing, he added "And we're 11-2 against Ole Miss with a six game winning streak."
Talk of championships and records was naturally welcomed by the Club crowd. But they wanted to hear more than history. What of the future? Specifically, the upcoming campaign?
"This is a new season, a new group, a new team," Stansbury said. "We lost two really, really valuable basketball players. Timmy Bowers was one of the better guards ever to play at Mississippi State. And Branden Vincent was the guy who did all the little things.
"We lost great leadership and great toughness, and I think that's the challenge for this team, this season. We have to develop more leadership and we have to develop more toughness. I believe we have the players to do it."
Beginning with the upperclassmen. Roberts is a known quantity across the country, but this is the year everybody should be able to appreciate Power now that his knee is fully-healed and the senior can show more of the athleticism he displayed at Iowa State. "We've got great experience back in Shane," Stansbury said. "You saw late in the season him begin to play better as he got into shape. He led us in scoring the three games of the season. And he's much better now after going through a spring and summer."
"Winsome Frazier is back. We had great bench guard play in Gary Ervin, now he becomes a full-time player. Marcus Campbell has made progress, now he has to step up and we believe he can. Ontario Harper had a good spring and summer, he's still in his brace and it will be important if he can go for us because he brings a lot of leadership and experience."
There is other experience in developing underclassmen in the frontcourt with Piotr Stelmach and Wesley Morgan, and third-year soph Michael Boler adds depth in the swing positions. However there is some question about the eligibility of sophomore guard Dietrick Slater for this school year. Stansbury did not mention his rookie class. The three freshmen forwards —Charles Rhodes, Walter Sharpe, and Jerrell Houston — are in school, while junior guard Jamaal Edmondson is still in the certification process required of junior college transfers.
With his bosses watching on Stansbury ‘thanked' them for putting together what he called "The most difficult non-conference schedule that I've ever had." That schedule is not complete yet, and a late opportunity might slow the process further. Last month State signed on to play in the eight-team Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska, on November 18-21. The Bulldogs were a late replacement for a team that dropped out, and Stansbury welcomed the chance to play four games that only count as one under the NCAA expemptions.
Now…"There may be a change with that," Stansbury said. "We've had ESPN come back to us for the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament, the premier tournament at he start of the year. It's a four-game tournament, it counts as one game."
Unfortunately if … and it remains a big ‘if' with contractual complications … State can play in the prestigious tournament none of the games would be in Humphrey Coliseum, due to NCAA rules against pre-sited competition in states that feature Confederate symbols. If the Bulldogs do play in the Coaches vs. Cancer, it would be in Birmingham with games on November 11-12. "Which is an open football weekend," Stansbury noted.
The third and fourth rounds would be November 18-19 in Madison Square Garden, first against Syracuse and then the winner/loser of Memphis vs. California. "It's a great stage to start your season off with," Stansbury said.
The Bulldogs will be playing on a lot of stages away from home this preseason, including a matchup December 5 in the John Wooden Classic; a return game with Xavier in Cincinnati; and the December 30 Sugar Bowl Classic, against Virginia Tech. This is the third year State has been asked to come, and bring a crowd, to the New Orleans event. "It's been a great event for us and our fans after Christmas," the coach said.
"So we've got a great non-conference schedule, we're still trying to put some pieces together differently." These late opportunities have made finding November and December home dates to match with contracted visitors more difficult, and slowed release of the schedule. Of course the 2003-04 slate was not announced until the end of last September, so this isn't unusual.
Neither has success been unusual for Bulldog basketball these last four years, and Stansbury led the crowd to expect more. "Again, I think the table is set," he said. The coach also thanked Paul Mize of the Mize Foundation for the scoreboard/message center now being installed. "It is going to add so much to The Hump."
As for the Bulldog seniors, they intend to add another banner — or two, or three — to the rafters hanging over the court they will play and plan to win on this winter. "With our hard work and our coaches' devotion to success, and your support, I don't see any reason the Bulldogs can't be a mainstay among the top programs in the nation," Power said. "That's our goal."
David Murray is the editor of Dawgs' Bite magazine and the featured writer for the Dawgs Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. You can contact him by email at email@example.com.