Ontario Harper Ready to Go

Much has been made this preseason about the experience returning on the Mississippi State basketball squad, and for good reason.<P> With the likes of returning starters Lawrence Roberts, Winsome Frazier and Shane Power back in the fold, head coach Rick Stansbury and his staff are not short on senior leadership.<P> However, the most experienced player is set to make his return as well when the Bulldogs tip off the season on Nov. 11 against Fairfield.

Senior forward/guard Ontario Harper hasn't logged any minutes since March 21, 2003, the day the Bulldogs were upset by Butler in opening-round action of the NCAA Tournament.

The Clinton native tore the ACL in his right knee during last year's preseason individual workouts. But the 6-foot-5 and 215-pound Harper is slowly working his way back to the court.

"It's great being back and able to play in a game," said Harper. "Sitting out last year was real hard for me. I just want to come back, work hard and have a positive impact for this basketball team."

Following the team's first full week of practice, Harper has endured a few problems with his knee. But so far, so good.

"The knee feels real good," said Harper. "I had a little problem with it earlier in practice and but I'm ready to give it a go again. Since the injury, I have been working hard to get back. And since I've been going hard every day, I really feel comfortable with it now. It's no longer a problem and I'm glad to be in position again to help my teammates.

"I think I can be the same player. I've been doing a pretty good job in practice, getting up and down the court. The big thing is getting back mentally and I've been handling that aspect as well."

And his coaches would agree.

"After seven or eight days of practice, I have a better feel of (Harper's condition)," said Stansbury. "Is there a certainty with it yet? No. But I'm pleased for him to be where he's at but at the same time, he's having a couple of problems with it. It swelled a little bit after Saturday's scrimmage and that's the first time that's happened.

"But his progress as a player, is he where he was before he got hurt? No. But his experience is and his mind is. And those are things you can sometimes offset that loss of quickness and athleticism. And we need Harper."

Of course, as each week passes, Harper's feel of the game will also return, as well as his chemistry during practices and games.

While those things take time, Harper still possesses the other intangibles that made him a 31-game starter in 2002-03.

Harper's teammates are also thrilled to have Harper back in action, realizing how vital his contributions will be this season.

"He brings another quality, smart player to the game," said fellow classmate Marcus Campbell. "He's a really good defensive player and he takes pride in his defense and rebounding. He's also a very good scorer when he has to be for this team."

Two years ago, Harper exhibited all those traits, keeping opponents honest with his shooting ability while being regarded as one of the team's top defenders.

Whether his role is in the starting lineup or providing a charge from the bench, Harper has learned the quality of adapting.

"I think everybody that came to this program has started some time during their basketball careers," said Harper, who averaged 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds in 2002-03. "Sometimes you have to accept certain things and deal with them. You have to take coaching and take a role. After I redshirted, I had to come off the bench as a freshman. That is what they wanted me to do and I accepted my role."

Like any competitor, Harper admitted last year was harsh at times, watching his teammates roll to a 26-4 mark and the school's first-ever, third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.

While observing the team, however, Harper managed to shed light on his situation with one eye on the future.

"You get to sit back and watch a lot of things," said Harper. "But when you go through that, you have to remain positive. It was hard for me to sit out, no doubt. You still go to practice but knowing you're going to miss the whole season was tough. You just have to take the positive things and other certain things and deal with them."

Harper has seen a lot of positive things during his tenure in Starkville, which began with the 2000-01 campaign. Although Harper was injured for all but five early contests, he witnessed State's transformation of national contender year-in and year-out.

"I'm very excited to begin my fifth year here at State," said Harper. "The first year I was here, it was very rough. Talent-wise, we had a lot of great players on that team. But the chemistry wasn't there and we didn't take it where we wanted to go. We had to settle for the NIT that year and it was disappointing with all our talent.

"But after that year, the team started to gel and come together closer as a family. A lot of people counted us out before the season and we used that as motivation, and got back to the (NCAA) Tournament. Everything has been happening for us since then, and it's obviously been great. Mississippi State has been great for me."

And the key to that success mirrors Harper's workman-like attitude on the court, willing to sacrifice personal gains for the benefits of teamwork.

"We've always had guys that wanted to come in and work hard," said Harper. "That's the main thing. Then you have guys that listen to what the coaches say and then take it to the game. But I still feel the big thing is you have to have guys who want to work hard together. Off the court, we gel, too, laugh and joke around with each other. I think we are a pretty close bunch of guys."

Paul Jones is a writer for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. Paul, also a sports writer for the Columbus Commercial Dispatch, can be reached by email at pjones@cdispatch.com.

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