"I mean, it's a night you can celebrate the accomplishments of this basketball team," Stansbury said. "And it seems every year we add to them." Most notably, the fact that Mississippi State was a NCAA Tournament participant for a program-unprecedented fourth year in a row, after posting a fourth-straight 20 victory season and the fifth of Stansbury's seven years in charge.
The sour? That coach, teammates, and Club members were formally saying farewell to a record-setting senior class. The six upperclassmen recognized included a pair, guard Winsome Frazier and center Marcus Campbell, who leave MSU owning the career record for victories after their teams went 97-33 over their four campaigns.
There was also some unspoken bitterness to the evening, not noted by the coach but apparent to the several-hundred crowd in the Union Ballroom. Four Bulldogs were not present for the awards ceremony, including Campbell who has withdrawn from school since the season ended to work on private preparations for various pre-draft tryout camps. That is not unusual for players in his position.
Also not joining their teammates for the banquet were all three true freshmen on this year's roster. Rookie players forward Charles Rhodes and center Walter Sharpe, and redshirt swingman Jerrel Houston, are all in an indeterminate status with the program right now. Or at least they are until the one man with final decision power makes his own determination.
"It's a couple of guys that are not a part of my program because they are not willing to do the little things off the court that you have to do," said Stansbury. "That's just the way it is."
Naturally everyone present preferred to applaud the evening's honorees. All Dogs in the Ballroom received their NCAA watches, and Stansbury had some fun with a few of the troops. Such as when point guard Gary Ervin, who has a hurt leg again and has been wearing a protective boot lately, limped to the presentation table. "That's the slowest I've ever seen you move," the coach quipped.
As guard Dietric Slater made his way forward Stansbury told the team's ranking athlete "Can you do it without a spin-move?" And a senior forward, who athletic director Larry Templeton had earlier called ‘Orlando,' was introduced by the coach as Orlando Ontario. Harper was also included among the other seniors in all aspects, though there has been much post-season discussion of whether the 25-year-old can receive one more year of NCAA eligibility.
Nine awards were handed out, four of them strictly statistical. Ervin received an award for leading the team in assists; Frazier for free throw percentage ("Did you play in the last game?" Stansbury teased), forward Lawrence Roberts for rebounding, and guard Shane Power the Three-Point shooting and Academic honors.
The other awards were picked by the coaching staff, and one—the Most Improved Player—was shared this year, with both center Wesley Morgan and Slater getting placques. Frazier was chosen Best Defensive Player; Roberts Best Offensive Player. And Power capped his big evening by winning the Babe McCarthy Memorial Award.
Unlike the last three years, there were no new trophies added to Mississippi State's case this year or championship banners won. But Stansbury didn't hesitate to call this team's achievements "special."
"It was a very different type of year," he said. "Very different. In my seven years it was the most adjustments and changing, and it started from day-one." By the last day, when the Dogs had lost to Duke in the second round of the NCAAs, State had wrapped up a sweet-and-sour season indeed. A month later Stansbury sees the bright side.
"For this team to accomplish what they did this year, under all the circumstances, they have a lot to be proud of. We've got good people."
At least, enough of them to keep State on a winning track for another year. Certainly Stansbury was not going to let some absences take the edge off this celebration. And if speculation has run rampant the last three weeks about what Sharpe, Rhodes, Houston, and even sophmore Ervin have in mind about next season, Stansbury made it clear afterwards in a private interview who is in charge.
"I'll make a decision," he said. How soon? "We'll see how they finish up academically and everything else." But without saying it in so many words, Stansbury indicated his decision(s) will be made well before the spring semester ends.
Not surprisingly these decisions are impacting State's spring recruiting plans. Having signed four players in November, the staff has inked—but not formally announced—two more since the spring signing period began last Wednesday in shooting guard Jamont Gordon and forward Bernard Rimmer, both prep schoolers. Stansbury said both should be eligible as true freshmen. He also reported that star center Vernon Goodridge will qualify for freshman action.
That doesn't mean recruiting is finished. "We're on the road now," Stansbury said. "We've got about ten days left now. I've been on the road basically since the Final Four, and we have until the end of April to finish up recruiting." The coach could not comment on specific prospects but it is known State is considering signing another point guard, either high school or junior college.
Of course last November the Bulldogs got a signature from the hottest backcourt prospect of them all, shooting guard Monta Ellis of Jackson, Miss., Lanier High School. Not that anyone is counting on seeing the prep All-American in a MSU uniform at the moment. Ellis has all but officially declared for the summer NBA draft, with a May 14 deadline to do so. What happens then if entirely up to Ellis.
"It's just a situation we'll have to wait on," said Stansbury, who has gotten very familiar with this summer waiting-game. He lost high schoolers Jonathan Bender (1999) and Travis Outlaw (2003) to the NBA. He kept Mario Austin for three years and got Roberts to return for a senior season. "I've learned a long time ago there's no use panicking or worrying too soon. Because it can drag out until June 19."
That is the deadline for withdrawal from the draft. Collegians have to pull out by then; high schoolers can actually go through the whole draft process without losing college eligibility as long as they don't sign with an agent or take money from a franchise, shoe company, and so on. As to the possibility Ellis might be undecided on into July, Stansbury agrees it's possible but not likely. "I don't know how many have done it," he said, "but most take their names back out. It's a long way yet."
And a long way until August when the 13 scholarship members of the 2005-06 Bulldog team are finalized.