From The Dawghouse

Rick Stansbury was, finally, relaxed. Seated on a table, leaning against a locker room wall in the Charlotte Coliseum, the Mississippi State coach was more at-ease than he had been in months. Maybe for five months, since the October day practices began for the 2004-05 season.

That this same season had ended an hour earlier with a gut-wrenching loss to Duke in the NCAA Tournament second round made Stansbury's ease not just interesting, but instructive. As much as the coach hurt over an end to the campaign, he also could not entirely hide a measure of relief that the long, hard, often erratic and frequently frustrating year was finally in the books.

Books the coach and most MSU veterans won't mind re-reading in the future. Because for all that went wrong these Bulldogs ultimately came out feeling alright in the end. Particularly, at the end.

"We're very disappointed every time we lose a game," the coach said. "But at the same time I couldn't be more proud of a group of guys that were on that floor and fought and fought and fought and fought."

The Dogs did fight, just as they had through the regular season and into the postseason. State showed how much fight they had by rallying from a 12-point, first-half deficit to crush Stanford 93-70 in the opening round, then coming back from 11 points to be within minutes of upsetting a #1 seed and spoiling spring plans for bracketeers, Blue Devils, and Billy Packer.

Ultimately Duke escaped, 63-55, and moved on to Austin, Tex., while the Bulldogs returned home to finish the spring semester and ponder what else they could have done…such as make a few free throws and convert just a couple of transition opportunities. "That's part of the game," senior guard Shane Power said. "I thought we did a good job fighting through it. The shots aren't always going to fall, but our character showed. And we leave here with our heads held high."

Power was talking about leaving Charlotte; he could just as accurately been speaking for the senior Dogs, all six of them, that played their parts in winning 23 of 34 games and keeping March madness a part of State's spring schedule. Stansbury certainly was thinking along those lines long after his players had left the locker room to him, sons Isaac and Noah, and a handful of remaining reporters. What did the coach think of the year now that it was over?

"My greatest thought is that if there is any disappointment with this year's team—and there is some with some people—but to win 23 games, take the #1 team in the country and feel you should have won, that tells you where our expectations are. And what our fans' expectations are. Hey, we can be proud of that."

The Bulldogs were proud enough of how they finished, with two impressive efforts in the big national spotlight. Though that, too, was tinged with regret. "That's what we expected for the beginning of the season," Power said. "I don't know why it's taken so long." Their point was that State went out playing closer to potential, and it was better to see it late than never…even if the what-ifs still stung.

"It hurts because everybody laid it on the line," senior forward Ontario Harper said. "Even the guys not playing. It was 15 guys getting each other's back."

"It was just go out there and play," said senior guard Winsome Frazier. "We fought through a lot this year, people doubted us. We didn't want this to be our last game." But it was, and now everyone is taking stock of what happened over the year and what might be in store for the next.

Five months later it is a bit eerie to recall what was expected of the year. Coming off a SEC Championship season and with All-American Lawrence Roberts sticking around for a senior season, the Bulldogs were picked to three-peat in the SEC Western Division, contend for the overall crown again, and hold a top-25 ranking from pre- to post-season. Even with two crucial graduations Stansbury had his own hopes high. "I felt we could compete for a championship. At the time we didn't understand the challenges we would have."

Maybe coach and team received a strong hint when Roberts strained his neck in an opening-practice fall and weeks later both broke his nose (with freshmen involved both times). The NCAA also imposed a two-game suspension for taking summer travel payments, though Roberts would have missed the opening weekend anyway. On the surface no long-term damage was done; under it, well, it was a sign of further troubles to come for everyone involved.

"This team has been through a whole lot," Stansbury said. "And it started from day-one." Transfer guard Jamall Edmondson also had to miss four weeks of practices while his eligibility was settled. So State was far from fully-prepared to meet Syracuse in the semifinals of the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic, or even two weeks later Arizona, resulting in prime-time losses that added to the national perception that MSU and the SEC weren't up to standards this time around.

The Dogs were still good enough to dismiss lesser competition at home and as Roberts got up to speed to thump both Xavier and Virginia Tech on the road. "We thought we had some pieces put together," Stansbury said, "we were 14-2." And ranked in the top-20 again after demolishing Auburn and winning at Mississippi. But that latter game was the single outstanding turning point of the season as Frazier broke a foot, missed eight games and did not start until the last day of the regular season.

"Then we get Frazier back and things change again," Stansbury said. For the better, eventually, though it took a couple of weeks to fit the senior shooter back into the flow of things and revamp rotations. Nor was Frazier his old self, especially on defense. And just to make sure everyone got the season-long message, Fate tripped up both Power and center Marcus Campbell with March injuries, and rookie backup center Walter Sharpe—a season-long conundrum—passed on the postseason.

Which made MSU's performance in Charlotte more impressive as a not-entirely-healthy squad beat a Pac-10 power and gave the Blue Devils a fright. "We were darned good in this tournament," the coach said. "All we need is to make some free throws and a couple of layups in transition and we win that game, absolutely no question about it." Not only did the Dogs play well but they played loose, relaxed, and at last with a display of pleasure. "We didn't come feeling the pressure to win, we came wanting to play as well and as hard as we could play." And the Bulldogs did that.

Just not well enough to win either the last game or the big prize. "I don't think we've accomplished everything we wanted," said Power. "There's a lot of things you can't control. The only thing you can control is effort."

And Stansbury is satisfied with that aspect. "These players could very easily have folded. If you look at our program we're a little disappointed, we're coming off years where we won three SEC championships. But our kids handled it, kept things in perspective and kept playing and kept us in contention. There's a lot of teams and programs that would love to have 23 wins." The sixth-most victories ever for State, in fact, though that might be overlooked by portions of the fan base with shorter memories. "So many people judge teams by the NCAA tournament," noted Power, who still believes the real measure of a team is shown in the regular season.

Still there was an open sense of unfinished business among the veterans. "We've been to the NCAAs, we've won championships," Harper said. "But I've never been to the Sweet 16, that was my goal and the other seniors. We just wanted it. Everybody gave their best shot and we can hold our heads high."

"For anybody to think this team, or any team, is a disappointment, that tells you where our program is at," said Stansbury. "When you can go to the second round against the #1 seed and fight them tooth and nail, then our expectations are where we want it. They want us to win every game, and that's exactly how we want it."

Now State supporters want to know what to expect next winter. Stansbury wasn't surprised that, with the season's final horn barely silenced, questions were already turning to the future. "It's going to be a total rebuilding year," he said, then grinning broadly, "probably will not win a game! We're starting over from ground-floor, zero expectations. How's that for setting a tone for next year?!"

The coach was having some relaxed fun, but of course there was a degree of truth to his quipped comment. The Bulldogs are now rebuilding and, if not entirely from scratch, doing it with some not completely proven parts. Six players were recognized on Senior Day, accounting for about 70% of the points and 66% of rebounds this team collected. That count includes the contributions of Harper, who did participate in Senior ceremonies but could still get an extra year under appeal. "We'll make a decision later," Stansbury said. "Ontario played well down the stretch for us." If Harper does take his degree into the working world, point guard Gary Ervin is the lone returning starter. And there is some uncertainty about his plans, though Ervin did start 33 times, finished second in SEC assists average, and sounded like someone with junior-year goals. "We can see what we can do and what kind of team we can be nationally if we get it all together," he said in Charlotte. "It's just motivation, now you get in the gym to make sure nothing like that happens when you're a senior." And indeed this week Ervin was seen heading into The Hump with a teammate, presumably to start their off-season.

The cupboard isn't entirely bare of other quarterback experience, as Edmondson got plenty of minutes—including quite a few in crunch-time—at the point. Signed as a shooter, the junior was 31-of-84 at the arc all year with 40 assists and, at times, respectable defensive work. It was hardly the season expected of Edmondson, but actually makes him all the more valuable as a senior in a uncertain Bulldog backcourt.

Uncertain because it might be June 21, the NBA draft deadline, before super-signee Monta Ellis' plans for next year are settled. The nation's premier dual-duty guard prospect is the latest State recruit who has to choose again between college and pro ball. Stansbury said he "felt good" about the chances Ellis would be in a MSU uniform for 2005-06, but the consensus elsewhere tilts the other way. And everyone just has to wait for the Jackson native to give the final word sometime between now and the summer solistice.

But the guard roster does get definite talent infusions in Reginald and Richard Delk. The former projects at a shooting guard, the latter as a point, but not surprisingly the twin brothers are well-matched in skills and will help ease the losses of Frazier and Power.

After two years as a backup junior-to-be Dietric Slater has shown he can fit into various perimeter plans and even swing down to a forward-like role. Junior Michael Boler has been limited to cameo roles for two years, yet when he plays he shows he can shoot from the arc. Now Boler gets a real chance to compete for playing time. Had Stansbury been told Frazier would be sidelined mid-season, the coach would have activated lanky wingman Jerrell Houston. Instead the 6-8 rookie redshirted, but during practices he showed he can shoot and move. Thus Houston is the wildcard in this deck.

The two freshmen who did play this season, forward Charles Rhodes and center Walter Sharpe, were the jokers, though often few were laughing as these rookies and roommates did not adapt easily to on- and off-court demands in college basketball. Both missed many games under unstated but obvious suspensions. Yet by year's end Rhodes was making strides in the right direction, getting modest minutes, and making plays…plays that barely hinted at his sheer physical potential. If the Jackson native picks up the off-season pace, he will step right into Roberts' position and write his own records. That puts pressure on big forward Piotr Stelmach, who after subbing for Roberts all 2003-04 practically vanished as a sophomore.

Sharpe's situation is entirely up in the air at the moment. The Birmingham big man was the first frosh to play this year and early on seemed sure to make a major impact all season, with great quickness and good offensive skills. Barely a month in, though, Sharpe became a distraction for the whole team, especially Rhodes. Several seniors privately said some of the team's troubles stemmed from the coaching staff still practicing basics at mid-season because the rookies were not up-to-speed yet. And though nobody would say so on-record, a February fracas in the locker room between Power and Sharpe further crimped team chemistry.

When Sharpe did not return in time for pre-NCAA practices he was left off the Charlotte trip. Stansbury has yet to say what will happen with the talented but troublesome postman. "We don't know," was the only comment, "don't know." What he does know is that 7-2 Wesley Morgan made long strides as a backup and can play a bigger role as a senior. And, that if Vernon Goodridge qualifies to play as a freshman, the 6-9 east coast big man will be one of the SEC real impact posts of 2006.

Tournament time done, the State staff can now focus all attention on spring signing plans after they get a better idea of who will definitely be on the roster, who is shaky, and who is left to be recruited. In coming weeks there will be more reports on recruiting. But whoever does come in, no matter their credentials, Stansbury is right: it will be a real rebuilding job without Roberts, Frazier, Power, Campbell, and (possibly) Harper. No team in the SEC is losing more combined experience, stats, and leadership.

And guess what? The coach is the calmest person involved. "We lost great guys last year," Stansbury said. "We lost guys the year before and we seemed to find a way, if you slow down and think what these guys have done over the last four or five years compared to what has happened at Mississippi State."

It's true. Since the Bulldog program broke through in 2002 with the first of four-straight NCAA appearances, State has lost all-stars, team leaders, and role players, and still put a winner and contender on the court the next season. "It's been great," said two-time All-American Roberts, who averaged a double-double both his Bulldog seasons. "I couldn't imagine a better place, for the fans to the players to the coaches. And just the opportunity we had last year and this year. All the stuff I've been through, this is what I wanted to come to and it's been great. We've had a great group of guys. It starts with the players and coaches getting some high quality players in here, and doing everything it takes to be good players. The end results, we've had good success."

Dogs past and present know where the credit belongs. "Coach is just trying to be a leader," said Frazier, "so when we leave there will be somebody to pick up where we left off."

"It's been a great feeling my years here," said Harper. "You really can't describe it. The program has grown so much and to be a part of it is a great feeling. It's getting 15 guys that want to play together. Each year we've bonded and everybody has accepted their roles, and it's clicked.

"I just wish good luck for the rest of the guys and the ones sitting on the side, I hope they can take it on to next year. I just hope the guys the next year take this tradition and build on it. We had a lot of young guys on the team this year and they got a lot of experience as well. I just hope they all make the best of it."

Departing senior Frazier believes they will. "We've built a program. People already here know what to expect."

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