State Tabbed To Win SEC West, 2nd Overall

Mississippi State will open the 2004-05 season on November 11-12, at the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic regional round to be played in the Jefferson County Civic Center. But two weeks in advance of tipoff, Rick Stansbury made a quick trip over to Birmingham for the SEC's annual basketball media conference, held across the street in the Sheraton Hotel.

While there, the Bulldog coach was handed a sheet reporting conference and divisional orders-of-finish as projected by the media. Mississippi State received 17 of the 18 votes to win the Western Division title (Alabama got the other), and nearly matched Kentucky, 9-8, in voting for overall SEC champions. Florida had the other first-place vote.

Initially Stansbury expressed surprise that the defending SEC Championship program is regarded quite so highly by the press corps going into a new season. Upon further review, and questioning, he did admit to some pride in this new stature.

"People are looking at us in a different light," Stansbury said. "As a coach, as a player, that's what you work for and what you want. I'll never run from high expectations."

Expectations are lofty indeed for the Bulldogs, who are the second week of practices and racing towards an early opening weekend in Birmingham. This team is having to practice at an energized pace, as unlike past years State has an abbreviated preseason before jumping right into a tournament-heavy November/December schedule. "We have three weeks' practice then then get thrown into the fire," Stansbury said.

Bulldog Country was thrown into near-panic when word got around that reigning SEC Player of the Year Lawrence Roberts had been injured in Wednesday's practice. The senior power forward had tried to block a shot, landed on freshman Charles Rhodes, and came down on his head and neck. "It's the last play of the last minute of practice," the coach noted. Fortunately it was not the last play of the week, or season, for Roberts, even though he was taken off-court on a board and spent the night and morning in Oktibbeha County Hospital for precautionary observation. The news raced out of Starkville at the speed of fear.

"We had a student organization meeting there," Stansbury said, "by the time we got to the hospital it was on the internet ‘broken neck' and ‘neck hanging off board' That's how it got totally out of whack." It turned out the tingling came more from the funny bone than the neck, so Roberts was turned loose Thursday (he had to miss the Birmingham trip) and expected to be back to work as normal. Stansbury was able to joke about the scare Thursday, and when the D.B. reporter noted that rookie Rhodes might have been trying to move up the power-forward depth chart the coach said "If that's the case, he needs to undercut somebody else!"

Roberts' status for the start of the season is less funny and still uncertain. Stansbury had no updates to offer from Monday's campus press conference, saying there had been no word from the NCAA. In July, Roberts has repaid the $900 cost of transportation and lodging provided by the Portland Trailblazers for the spring workout he participated in with three other amateurs. And as Stansbury said, until this year such repayment has been accepted procedure by the NCAA.

"They (the NCAA) are coming back, saying it's a new rule and that is questionable right now. We haven't heard anything from them, hopefully we hear soon and know exactly where he stands. We feel good about the situation." At the same time should Roberts be found to have violated any guidelines he could be penalized up to 30% of the season, based on the dollar amount of the benefit. State doesn't feel this case will come to that, and in fact Stansbury believes Roberts will be lining up for opening-day in Birmingham.

Eight days into preseason work the rest of the starting lineup is setting up as just about any devout Dog fan could have predicted. Point guard Gary Ervin is handling his promotion to starter capably in practices, though the soph will be the youngest triggerman to run State since Marcus Bullard eight years ago. "One thing I don't have that I had on our past three championship teams is a very mature point guard," Stansbury said. "But Gary played more minutes than any freshman I've ever had. And it's not about confidence with Gary, he's a very confident person. It's the experience he has to gain."

Ervin's assuming the role held by Timmy Bowers means State loses a pure shooter at point, though the kid can knock down threes. "But there are things he can do better than Timmy," Stansbury said. "He's quicker endline-to-endline with the basketball. He's making a few adjustments and changing gears better. He's a young player on a pretty good team and that's put expectations on him."

Depth at the point is a question mark, particularly with Ervin's ankle occasionally getting sore. Wing-forward Shane Power is practicing as a backup, just in case, because right now juco transfer Jamaal Edmondson has a hamstring problem and soph Dietric Slater has not had his hardship appeal for full-year eligibility granted. Stansbury thinks Edmondon, a JC shooter, can spell Ervin in time.

"We think so. That's what we're waiting on, he's been hurt. We need more depth there. He has a lot of ability to shoot, but can he run the team the way we want it run, we don't know yet."

Seniors Winsome Frazier and Power return for a second year starting together at big guard and small forward, though in State's offense both are interchangeable. Frazier has picked up where he left off last year, and is taking over some of Bower's scoring. Power is expected to be an even better player now that his knee is full-strength for a full season, and he can run and jump as he did at Iowa State.

"We have some perimeter guys in Shane and Winsome who can knock the shot down better than last year," Stansbury said. The coach added that fifth-year junior Ontario Harper has performed well in practices and will be able to help this team again.

The biggest help Roberts could get, other than the green light from the NCAA, would be from a low-post teammate. Senior Marcus Campbell is back in the starting job he held the first 14 games last season, and this year he'd rather not give it up. Stansbury acknowledges how critical the 7-0 veteran's impact can be in this lineup.

"If we can get Campbell doing what he's supposed to do inside it makes a pretty tough high-low situation down there." At the same time, Stansbury is watching another tall Dog making a big case for himself in preseason. "I think Wesley Morgan is one of our most improved players. I wasn't too smart last year, look at the stat sheet and he's 12-for-12. I don't care if it's mop-up time, he has that kind of ability to score.

"More importantly he's going to execute and do all the little things right. He's big, he's holding his weight at 245. And I think him and Lawrence really have the ability to play together." That's because Morgan is the better passer of the two big men.

Stansbury says State is practicing as if Roberts will be cleared by opening night…but just in case other younger forwards are getting work there. Piotr Stelmach has a year's work in SEC wars to his credit, which is allowing the sophomore power forward to keep a preseason-lead on two talented freshmen, Rhodes and Walter Sharpe. "Pete's going to do everything right, he's very fundamental," Stansbury said. "The freshmen are pushing him right now, when they catch up they have chances to step up because they're athletes."

Sharpe has overcome a slow start, as he struggled in fall conditioning work, to muscle into the frontcourt mix after eight days. "After watching him in practice he has picked himself up and done things better than we anticipated," Stansbury said. "Charles can step away from that basket, he's really skilled. He can pass the ball, beat you off the dribble, he shows me something different every day." Such as last Saturday when the rookie led the scrimmage in rebounding. While Sharpe is projected as a post player and Rhodes as a forward, the coach said both can play either power position.

The third freshman, lanky Jerrell Houston, is practicing as a pretty big ‘small' forward. Stansbury said the depth there means Houston has to scratch for minutes right now. "But he gives you a long, athletic wing-type player who plays with energy."

Unlike last year, these Bulldogs will go into the season with a ranking and corresponding expectations. Stansbury sees some favorable comparisons with the '04 SEC Champs, such as a good mix of inside/outside punch and aggressive defense. If the centers play well around Roberts this squad will be even more potent in the post offensively. "I think we're a difficult team to guard," the coach said. Overall depth is much better at most positions, save the unsettled backup rotation at point guard. "When Jamall gets back in this flow we'll see what he can do. And I feel comfortable we'll be able to plug those freshmen in."

But there are other unanswered questions as well. Most of all, can this squad display the same mental and physical toughness as last year's unit, and who can replace the leadership provided by Bowers and Branden Vincent. Here, Stansbury believes, there is no one player to meet those needs. "That means we have to get it from more people."

Though State is the near-consensus pick to take a third-straight Division title, Stansbury cautions that the West is going to be brutal this year. "Alabama brings four starters back and the coaches picked them to have three of the best 16 in the league. LSU has four starters back, Brandon Bass is one of the better players in the league, and they brought in a McDonalds' All-American. Arkansas has as much depth and talent as anybody in the league.

"On paper I know Auburn lost a lot, but offensively they'll be fine and make it difficult to guard them. Ole Miss lost two really good players but they have seven seniors back and any time you have experience you have a chance." All of these teams have two chances to beat the Bulldogs, and a couple of rivals have excellent shots at claiming the Division title. As far as the overall conference outlook, Stansbury agrees Kentucky is talented again but younger than usual, while Florida is loaded with both ability and experience.

Still the Bulldogs and their coach are confident going into a new season, and believe once again they can answer all questions successfully. "Our team will have an opportunity to compete," Stansbury said. "That's all you ask for."

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