It was last July, when a Jackson-area fan mentioned that Ellis had hit a growth-spurt. Not that he's a towering lad yet, of course, but once he got nearabouts the 6-2 mark I figured that was it, that pro scouts could now more easily talk themselves into taking a chance on a kid still in need of some playing pounds. Yeah, I know, that sort of dazzling analysis won't win me any job as a NBA headhunter.
But it did steel this scribbler for the ensuing season, so that even while reprising the slim possibility Ellis might yet wear a Mississippi State uniform at heart I—and probably almost 99% of y'all—figured otherwise. We've been through this before. So has Rick Stansbury, who said it years ago and will surely again: you don't recruit against the NBA. Or at least not directly.
Thus my assurance that the Bulldog coach is the least-surprised of all us. Nor does Stansbury feel the sky is falling in on his program today, though there are accompanying issues on the current roster that give legitimate reason for fan-concern about the foundation. More on this in a moment.
Because at this point I must insert the inevitable ‘if' contractually required of columnists. There remains a chance Ellis could change his mind. There is also a chance Jeff Gordon could be elected mayor of by the infield crowd at Talladega. Calculate those near-identical odds for yourself.
Now. Back to the real topic of this damp day. If Ellis won't be needing a locker in The Hump, just exactly what will be the names stitched on Bulldog uniforms this winter? As reported last Monday, when I had a chance to speak with Stansbury both on- and off-the-record, all three of the past year's freshmen are extremely unsure of places in the program now. Now a week later it's essentially certain that forward Charles Rhodes is out the door that center Walter Sharpe went through—even if he's still playing a game with the coaching staff—earlier. And redshirted forward Jerrell Houston appears right behind both.
Then there's point guard Gary Ervin, the lone 2004-05 starter left…if he hasn't. Talking to folk in the program, it's obvious nobody knows Ervin's up-to-the-minute status, least of all himself. He wants to go and he wants to stay and he just wants the best arrangement for himself. As does everybody in today's game of basketball, if we're honest. I won't be surprised either way, though I should ‘point' out that while Ervin does have definite strengths his basic inability to be a consistent perimeter threat crimps the way Stansbury likes to play offense. It's not Ervin's fault that he isn't a gunner like Timmy Bowers, or able to physically whip opponents like Derrick Zimmerman. I like the guy personally and wish he'd stay around, but if he does go elsewhere it's understandable.
For that matter I wish Rhodes had made it all the way around that corner we thought he'd turned in March. His game skills badly need honing but mercy, what pure physical potential! That was a kid a team could be built around. A title team. Now we'll always wonder what-if…what if he hadn't been roomed with bad-apple Sharpe last semester? What if Rhodes' role had been made clear from the start? Y'all recall the confusion about his presumed ‘redshirting' in December, even after we reported here he was over the game-participation limit; then how the story was spun later that he'd been given the choice of playing in his Jackson hometown or redshirting?
If that was the true story then one must question the wisdom of letting a player make such a decision that would affect an entire roster. And anyone offended that I suggest an ‘if' here, consider this hard fact I've learned after years covering teams, athletes, and coaches. There are always four angles to any dispute: the positions each party had at the time, and the positions they paint after-the-fact to make themselves look in the right. The amusing thing is each side is able to convince themselves what they want to believe is the truth. Sorta like after a bad breakup in a romance, I guess.
In fact, it's not entirely unthinkable that there could yet be a kiss-and-make-up turn to this story. Stranger things have happened and college hoops has become a pretty darn strange world anyway. And to veer down a detour briefly, let me inject this: with the star-treatment promising youngsters receive practically from the day somebody—a school coach, AAU coach, college scout, pro scout, shoe company or camp jackal, whoever—identifies them as a prospect, it's amazing any of them come out of the process with their expensive sneakers still firmly on the floor. Ellis seems to be one of the more mature kids around, certainly moreso than some MSU fans are acting today.
Would that Rhodes were as mature. And let's not forget, he did transfer high schools, so there was a precedent there. Not that State shouldn't have signed him, of course. But in retrospect Stansbury would have handled the raw young beast differently, or at least tried. Maybe nothing would have worked, which certainly seems the case with Sharpe. No wonder some Alabama reporters snickered when State inked the Birmingham product. Yet here he is, practically taunting the MSU staff by saying he's "more than likely" leaving.
I'll go out on a long limb here and say if State were to allow Sharpe back the program might keep a needed body but lose a lot of respect. And along that line, it's amusing in a cynical sorta way to hear the very few comments made by the coaches and the presumably-departing frosh. It's almost a "you aren't quitting, you're fired" or a "you can't fire me, I quit" thing that leaves nobody looking particularly noble. If you've noticed I have not expounded on Houston's situation, it's because I have no clue why he'd want to move after sitting a year unless talk of a girlfriend in juco is true. Am I naive to say that far as this old guy can tell there's a whole lot of rather nice coeds on this campus? But what does a career bachelor know of true love anyway?
I'm also not going to spend space expounding on what losing a whole freshman class could mean a couple years down the line under those looming Academic Progress Rate rules. Other than to say that, if Rhodes and Sharpe really are leaving ineligible, and neither Marcus Campbell nor Roberts finish their degrees, then State is doomed lose the maxiumum two scholarships someday under A.P.R. That's two of 13, a crippling quota. Though I'll add that I've a hunch A.P.R. will be watered down in the long run much as Prop 48 was a decade ago. Just a hunch.
So then. Barring some serious changes of heart and mind, Mississippi State is about to lose most if not all of what had been a strong freshman class, as well as the finest freshman guard Stansbury probably ever could ink. Signing Ellis was worth it, too, and State doesn't really lose anything because Ellis was never part of the team anyway. Nor should Stansbury shy away from recruiting other potential pros, even if we fans think it might scare off some signable kids at that same position. Give Stansbury credit for bucking the inherent MSU conservatism that rarely dared to aim truly high. If he misses, at least he was shooting for the top rung.
Remember, too, that basketball should never have to truly ‘rebuild.' An aggressive and successful recruiter can reload a program in a year, two at the most…as long as there is a decent core of personnel who might not have pro potential but can play the kind of game the coach favors. That said, Mississippi State is cutting things mighty close at the moment. Let's do an impromptu roll-call, shall we?
And let's begin with those Dogs we can be reasonably (oh, 80% or better) sure are on the 2005-06 roster, presuming nothing happens between now and August enrollment and all signees, announced or not, are indeed eligible. A brave assumption, but you gotta start somewhere.
The backcourt: veterans Jamall Edmondson and Michael Boler, signees Jamont Gordon, Richard and Reginald Delk. Ahhh, Monta, we hardly knew ye'. Jamall can play point if absolutely necessary and yes, it looks that way now or at least until Richard Delk gets up to college speed. Now isn't Ervin's experience looking a lot better all of a sudden? His buddy Billy Begley also seems more interesting.
By contrast this is the deepest lineup of shooting guards Stansbury has had…if they can all shoot, that is. How dare I suggest otherwise? Call it an oldtimer's reserve. I want to seem these guys put the ball in the hole when a SEC senior is guarding them. Edmondson can hit an open J and I wish Boler had gotten more competitive minutes because he's a real athlete. Gordon and Delk have the reps; we'll see in October if they have the shots. Oh, and Gordon still has to graduate from that prep school.
Sheesh, what happened to all that depth the Dogs had on the wings? Maybe Boler will get those minutes after all. And while I'll cringe every time he puts up a jumper, Dietric Slater ought to make a better small forward than non-shooting guard. He can be a fine defender and go to the boards, and I'd sure as heck rather have him driving after a steal than trying to direct a fastbreak. Give him a tape of Michael Gholar, fast.
This is why Stansbury sent Bernard Rimmer to prep school a year, just in case. And the case is come so Rimmer has been re-signed. State is also looking at other guard/forwards, or perhaps forward/guards is more accurate, but you'll have to ask Gene for specifics about the Ollie kid from Indianola. Or any other comparable prospect, though there aren't that many first-rankers left to be signed at this time of the year.
The frontcourt: Wesley Morgan has spent four years waiting—and weight-ing--for his big chance. Here it is, big guy. And even setting aside how much it means to the team, there isn't a Dog I'd rather see have a big senior year than Wes. Or a story I'd rather write come next March than how Morgan blossomed into a solid SEC center. No calm objectivity here, I'm cheering hard for the guy.
Since it looks as if Ontario Harper is ready to hang up the sneakers (he finished high school in 1-9-9-8, for goodness sakes), Piotr Stelmach ought to be ready to resume his college career. I mean, he looked pretty good as a freshman backing up Roberts before getting lost in the shuffle as a soph, and this frontline can absolutely make use of all the experience available. That said, the baseline future really is in the 6-9 form of Vernon Goodridge, who hopefully will report at more than his 220-pound signing size. Thankfully he's also eligible, according to a MSU staffer.
Right, it's not a long roster if all who are thinking about bolting do so. Seriously, is there any chance of salvaging the Rhodes and Houston situa…sorry, didn't mean to go there. I mean even if they do return how much trust could their teammates and coaches be willing to invest in them at this point? (To which the cynic will respond ‘as much as necessary to get them all back to the NCAAs for a fifth year.') Ervin wouldn't have much trouble fitting back in, I'd guess, though changing his game is another matter. What the heck, I'd feel a lot better with a proven ballhandler around.
We'll also have a lot better idea of the bottom-line outlook for next winter when the spring signing season ends in mid-May and the recruiting roster is finalized. No, I don't know what the deal is with Kenneth Cooper other than the NCAA did have a signed N.L.I. with Okie State in the file cabinet. As to other prospects, again, ask Gene. He loves this recruiting stuff, though this weekend's combine has all his attention at the moment.
Nor do you need to ask me today what the presumed 2005-06 Dogs should be able to do. It's way, way too early to make such pronouncements, and not because I'm wimping out. Consider this:
Stansbury has lost most of the starting lineup from a team that earned a SEC title and played in the NCAAs, even though the overall season didn't turn out quite as well as expected. The star center, who came back for another year, is now gone. So is the ace backcourt defender, and a proven frontcourt complement to that center. And the prize of the recruiting class has decided to turn pro. All of a sudden the outlook for the next year is cloudy at best.
2005-06? Oh, no, I'm talking about 2003-04. Look back just a couple of years, when Stansbury saw his roster gutted by graduation (Derrick Zimmerman, Michal Ignerski), early departure (Mario Austin) and the NBA (Travis Outlaw). Now substitute names like Shane Power, Winsome Frazier, Lawrence Roberts, and Monta Ellis. Devastating, right?
Not necessarily. Stansbury kept his cool two years ago and in retrospect the 2003-04 team made out OK.
Now by absolutely NO means am I suggesting that after this spring's trauma Mississippi State will be claiming another conference crown next March. Nor even another Western Division title, though should a few guys in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge ultimately opt out (not a sure thing yet) the West will be up for grabs. Arkansas' underclassmen, who have to be all growed-up by now, would benefit most immediately. Anyway, don't read this to imply that lightning will strike again as it did in the summer of '03, since the odds of another Roberts-type transfer are roughly the same as me getting behind the wheel of that #48 car this Sunday. Talk about the sky falling…
What I do mean is that however dim the outlook for 2005-06 now appears, and even the most Maroon-tinted viewer has to acknowledge the uncertainty of the situation, by now we ought to have learned one fact about Bulldog basketball. Don't write off any Stansbury squad or season in advance. After all, this is a man whose unofficial motto is "well, hey, these things work out."