Roberts' Status Uncertain Going Into Crucial Week

No, Rick Stansbury did not have the answer to the first and most obvious Monday-morning question. And the coach is more eager to know the status of Lawrence Roberts than any reporter could have been.

"We don't know at this point," the Mississippi State coach said on the SEC's weekly basketball teleconference. "We honestly just don't know."

Stansbury does know the early-week uncertainty is frustrating, as the Bulldogs begin preparations for a Wednesday night road game with Georgia. Mississippi State was off Sunday after a 94-78 whipping at Kentucky, taking their mandatory down-day to start the week. The only activity at Humphrey Coliseum yesterday was in the training room, and that centered around the senior power forward. Specifically, his right leg, which Roberts hurt in the second half at Lexington.

Sunday reports calmed fears for all who saw the incident as Roberts collided with a Wildcat and then slid to the court, right leg extended and unnaturally bent. "It was really scary," Stansbury agreed. Initial concerns that the knee was damaged were unfounded, fortunately. "We don't think it's any ligaments," the coach repeated today.

"It's right above the kneecap, not in the thigh," Stansbury said, adding that the extent of the presumed pulled muscle at the bottom of the quadriceps muscle is still being gauged. "Today we'll know a little more exactly where he's at." In health terms, that is; whether Roberts is standing in the starting lineup at Athens or even in uniform on the bench will be determined this afternoon and tomorrow.

"We don't know that status right now at all," Stansbury stressed. "As far as being able to play Wednesday night that's up in the air right now." And if Roberts is not able to play against the ‘other' Bulldogs? That's another subject to be discussed earnestly this afternoon. "We'll have to evaluate and see, there are just so many options."

When Roberts was sidelined by a broken nose to start this season, sophomore forward Piotr Stelmach started both games. Stelmach, who had not played since a minute against Florida, got in two minutes at Kentucky.

What is not optional from State's standpoint, and more to the point in regard to their SEC standing, is winning at Georgia. Consecutive losses to LSU and Kentucky have dropped the Dogs to 18-8 overall, 6-6 SEC, and two games behind the Tigers on the Western Division ladder. With just four league games left catching LSU is unlikely; getting caught by an Arkansas team that could win their last three contests is all-too-possible now, which would send State to the SEC Tournament seeded just #4 out of the West.

Then there is the following, bigger tournament. State has given away almost all their NCAA margin over the last few weeks, to the point that a postseason berth suddenly is not a sure thing. The Bulldogs need at least 20 regular season wins now, and Georgia is the first chance to reach 19. "It's a game we all understand the importance of," Stansbury said.

It also looks much more competitive than a few weeks ago, with Georgia coming off a home win over Auburn and getting guard Levi Stukes back from a January 20 ankle sprain. Before he went out the sophomore was UG's leading scorer. His return could not be worse-timed from State's standpoint.

"I think Georgia is playing well," Stansbury said. "Even though they didn't win at Kentucky they played extremely well and came back and beat a good Auburn team. It helps that they've got their best player back."

Of course State got a good one back last week with the return of senior guard Winsome Frazier after a January 8 foot injury. Frazier came back ahead of schedule and scored 11 points against LSU in 24 minutes. He added 11 more in 26 minutes against the Wildcats, and in the two games he has five treys.

This is something State can desperately use, as for the last seven weeks opponents have swarmed Roberts in the post and dared the Dogs to take—and make—perimeter shots. When Roberts is back to strength, Stansbury can see the potential for a better-balanced lineup.

"Hopefully getting Frazier we can help that some, make people pay (for double-teaming Roberts) by knocking down shots. That's been one of our difficulties. This gives us another perimeter shooter."

While the coaches consider possible adjustments for the upcoming game, Stansbury discussed some adjustments that a couple of individual Bulldogs have been making. Junior guard Jamall Edmondson returned to the starting lineup in the last game, but in place of 25-game starting point guard Gary Ervin this time. Ervin was held out at tipoff by "coach's decision" according to Stansbury, though reports of his actions after the LSU loss indicated some attitude issues. He did play 16 minutes off the bench and could return to the starting job this week.

Still Edmondson has gotten more minutes the last few weeks, and not in his expected role as shooting guard. Stansbury says the junior has made the change from juco scorer to SEC playmaker. "It's an adjustment anytime you bring a guy in, especially one that scored so many points, and he's playing point, he's asked to lead a team and distribute the ball." Edmondson is still far from an accomplished quarterback and had turnover issues at Kentucky…as did the entire team with 23 giveaways.

And Stansbury really wants Edmondson to get more chances to do what he was signed to do. "To his credit he's accepted his role. The speed of the game has been an adjustment to him, and the toughness you have to defend with at this level. He's kept a good attitude. Sometimes he's too unselfish doing it, I thought he turned down some shots at Kentucky."

The biggest splash in the last game, though in defeat, came from an almost-forgotten bench Dog. Freshman Charles Rhodes took advantage of minutes created by Roberts' fouls and injury to play 13 minutes at power forward and score eight points, along with six rebounds and three blocks. It was Rhodes' first action since December 22, and his SEC debut. Most of the stats also came once the game was out of reach, too.

Yet the numbers, and minutes, were tangible results of progress Stansbury has seen from the touted rookie in recent weeks. As to why Rhodes (who could not receive a redshirt already) was activated, the coach responded bluntly. "It starts off the practice floor. His ability to do the right things off the court, taking care of business, going to class and study hall. That's what gives you a chance to get on the court. In the last ten days he's become more attentive there and we've put him in some things, and it's allowed him to be more a part of practice."

And now a part of real games, where Rhodes' talents could come in handy. "No question his abilities can help our team," Stansbury said. "He's a great athlete who can jump up a in crowd and play above that rim. And he's showing some toughness in their. He's got a lot of ability, hopefully we can get something out of him down the stretch."

The coach said Rhodes' status on the bench was never about ability, but accountability…something Stansbury said the youngster was experiencing for the first time. "For all new kids it takes time, some more than others." And until lately State had the time to spare, or so it seemed. "With the makeup of our team we weren't having to depend on him and he wasn't getting playing time. That didn't help the way he responded to some things sometimes."

And at the current time? "We anticipate him helping us from here on out," the coach said. But whether this means help in the form of a first-line substitution or even starting minutes, that is to be determined along with who Mississippi State will be able to line up for tipoff in Stegeman Coliseum in two days.

"We just don't know yet," Stansbury said.

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