Bulldogs Prepare For Road-Tourney TipOff

He'd prefer another two weeks of preseason practicing. He'd also appreciate opening this schedule up on the home court. And he really, really would rather have his best player in the lineup.

But since Rick Stansbury can't have any of those things, he and his Bulldogs might as well make the most of the opportunity, and the personnel, available, as Mississippi State tips off the 2004-05 season in the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic. The Bulldogs join Fairfield, Birmingham-Southern, and Alabama A&M in a regional round played at Birmingham's Jefferson County Civic Center for Thursday and Friday games.

"It's a great tournament, for a great cause," Stansbury said Tuesday morning in a tournament teleconference. "It's a pre-season tournament that we'll be one of the few teams in the country getting to play in."

Sixteen teams are playing November 11-12, with the four regional winners advancing to the November 18-19 championship and consolation rounds in New York City's Madison Square Garden. Other host schools are California, Memphis, and Syracuse.

Technically, Mississippi State is also a regional ‘host.' But due to a NCAA policy of not pre-siting events in states that feature Confederate symbols (Mississippi and South Carolina, specifically), the Bulldogs will be hosts without a home. Nobody involved is pleased, either MSU or the CvsC officials. State is unhappy about losing a four-game opening weekend during a football open date; the tournament regrets lost potential revenue for donations to the American Cancer Society, which this preseason event was created to do. Since 1995 the CvsC has raised over $2.2 million.

"There's a cost for us, for the American Cancer Society, and the program," said Rick Giles of the Gazelle Group, organizer of the tournament. "All of us bear a heavier financial burden than if we had played in Starkville."

Stansbury has his own insight into the tournament's cause, as his father died in 2002 after battling cancer. (Alabama A&M Coach Vann Pettaway is recovering from cancer surgery this summer.) The Bulldog coach pointed to the contradiction of the NCAA allowing post-season events to be sited regardless of political symbols, and Giles mentioned that conference championships have been played in Mississippi and South Carolina since the policy went into effect.

"I don't think the flag had anything to do with the game," Stansbury said. "I don't think the NCAA has any reason to step in and make a decision based on the flag hanging over your capitol." But regardless of participant feelings, pro or con, the MSU regional is being played across the state line. And politics won't affect the quality of play.

In fact, this would be an ambitious start for State wherever played. "I was more excited about playing in this tournament, until I started coaching my team," Stansbury said. "We're nowhere near where we should be."

That must sound like poor-mouthing to the rest of the regional, as MSU was ranked #12 in the Associated Press pre-season poll announced Monday evening. None of the other participants are ranked. Still Stansbury is concerned about the accelerated practice schedule to get ready for a November 11 debut, as well as the matchups in both the regional and title rounds.

"Normally you have three more weeks to practice and play your first game, then three weeks at home against cupcakes. So you have eight weeks to get your team right. We open, on the road, against a really tough opponent."

Mississippi State also opens with the biggest individual name in the regional, or the entire tournament in fact, not able to play. All-America forward Lawrence Roberts will miss the opening weekend after suffering a broken nose in a practice collision last Thursday. Roberts underwent repair surgery Tuesday morning in Columbus as scheduled, and was back in Starkville before noon. "Everything went as planned," Stansbury said.

But the coach had planned on having his leading scorer/rebounder and reigning SEC Player of the Year lined up at power forward this week. He said Roberts is definitely out for the first two games, and possibly might not be ready if State advances to New York. "That doesn't help," Stansbury said.

"There's nobody going to take his place. But somebody will be out there in his position." That somebody is sophomore forward Piotr Stelmach, who backed Roberts up at power forward on State's 2003-04 SEC Championship lineup. Stelmach has winning experience and a better grasp of the gameplan than a couple of freshman options, such as Charles Rhodes and Walter Sharpe. But none of them are Roberts, and his absence means a major void in both the offense and defense.

"It's tweaking your whole team," Stansbury said. "That's what I've found to be such a challenge."

Fairfield, the Thursday night (8:00) opponent, would be challenge even for a full-strength State team. "I don't think we could have asked for a more difficult so-called ‘home' opener than we're going to have against Fairfield," Stansbury noted. The Stags are coming off a 19-11 year and third-place finish in the Metro Atlantic.

Not only does Coach Tim O'Toole have four starters and ten lettermen back, but he will have the full lineup. Two of his top players, point guard Terrence Todd (suspension) and big forward Deng Gai (ankle) missed most of the second half of the season. Now they are back in the lineup, after the 6-9 Gai attended the NBA pre-draft camp.

"We're doubly-thrilled to be in the tournament," O'Toole said. "It's a tremendous honor for us and we hope it prepares us for our league. And we're thrilled to play a team of the caliber of Mississippi State."

Stansbury is less-thrilled about this first-night matchup. "The toughest challenge, besides having to play Fairfield, is having people understand just how good Fairfield is. Their best two players didn't play the last half of the season and they were still able to win 19 games. Now they are back and the guys off the bench gained valuable experience. It's going to be a very difficult game for us.

"Naturally if it was at home we'd have more of a comfort zone. But it's not a home game, and you take Lawrence out of the mix…naturally it's an opportunity for somebody to step up."

Stansbury will stick with the same starting lineup as shown in an exhibition win over PanAmerican of Mexico. Senior center Marcus Campbell and Stelmach open in the frontcourt with soph Gary Ervin at point guard, and seniors Winsome Frazier and Shane Power on the wings. How the Bulldogs will rotate without Roberts is something to settle over the next two days, though.

"It's getting the team ready to play early against a tough competition," Stansbury said.

In the other bracket, former MSU aide Duane Reboul's BSC team has the ‘hometown' advantage to go with a veteran lineup. "We are somewhat of an experienced team, we have six seniors and several guys have seen consistent action. But we're in different roles. This non-conference season is very important to us, we think we have a pretty good team and we'll get better as the season goes on." The Panthers were 20-7 last season, tying for the Big South title at 12-4.

Alabama A&M returns four primary players, three starters, from a 13-17 team that was 9-9 in the SWAC. Pettaway likes his nucleus. "These guys saw a lot of action last year, and Obie Trotter was first-team all-conference. We're looking forward to a very successful season."

The A&M Bulldogs and Panthers play at 6:00. Friday's consolation round is at 6:00 with the championship game at 8:00. And while Giles said the organizers would prefer to be playing on the MSU campus, this should still be a good season-opening event. "The MSU athletic department has been instrumental in getting this thing done at the BJCC. We've been pleased with the response, and maybe the unique nature has contributed to the fact that there will be excitement in Birmigham for college basketball this week."

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