The Summer State Of State Statements

The College World Series is over, and preseason football is still five weeks off. Thus this relatively calm point of the calendar is a prime time to take stock of the Mississippi State of things, with a review of what the spotlight (re: ticket-selling) Bulldog sports did in the year-past and what might be in store for the season-ahead. This three-day series continues with a look at basketball.

Maybe folk outside Starkville will eventually show some unqualified respect for what Rick Stansbury has built. Perhaps they'll acknowledge that Mississippi State is now a consistent contender in the Southeastern Conference and an expected entrant in the NCAA Tournament. It's possible they will even agree that Bulldog basketball is not merely a matter of scratching a squad together each new season, but an established, serious hoops program. Maybe they will.

Or, maybe not. And know what? Stansbury could scarcely care less. If opponents and observers are annually ‘surprised' to find the Bulldogs battling for another title and appearing in postseason play, that's their problem. Literally, since foes usually find themselves on the wrong end of State's scoreboard. For his part the Bulldog coach is less concerned with compliments than championships, and results take priority over respect.

The records certainly merit regard, of course. 149 wins in seven seasons, 62 of them conference conquests; six postseason bids, the last four-straight to the big NCAA dance; four total SEC titles, whether for winning the Western Division, the overall league crown, or the conference tourney. By any respectable standard this qualifies Mississippi State as a prime-time player on the national scene.

The interesting, and probably inevitable, fact is that after this latest successful season the team/program did not receive unalloyed regard from even its own fans. The Bulldogs posted a 23-11 record, went 9-7 SEC and 1-1 in the league tourney, and split games in the Charlotte Regional where they whipped Stanford and played top-seed Duke down to the wire before a 63-55 loss. Not all that long ago such a season would have sent State folk into raptures lasting half-a-decade.

Now? There is a nagging sense of incompleteness out in Bulldog Country. Disappointment, even, as if more is expected of Stansbury's program than just a 20-win record, just coming out ahead in the SEC standings, just earning a NCAA berth. And know what else? That is just great to the coach, who considers raising the annual expectations of Bulldog basketball as significant a victory as any his teams have scored on the court. A Hump full of fans demanding more from the Dogs is as much a factor in State's success as recruiting and coaching, and Stansbury doesn't mind this sort of pressure in the least.

Another interesting fact is that the season-past was the most demanding of Stansbury's tenure to-date, and might have seen his best all-around job in terms of classic ‘coaching.' Coming off a 2003-04 SEC Championship campaign where just about everything went right (at least in the regular season) where it often seemed the coaches merely needed to check off the starters and have cold water ready for timeouts, the 2004-05 season was a grueling grind from tip-to-horn. This time around things went wrong with unnerving regularity, whether it was injuries on the court or dissension in the locker room. The incredible chemistry that produced a SEC crown the year before somehow turned toxic and even the best days left everyone with a headache.

And State continued winning anyway. Not as often as the previous year; nor was victory as enjoyable for staff and team alike. Put another way, the season was just not a lot of fun for this bunch of Bulldogs, and when it ended there was an almost-audible sigh of collective relief from the locker room including those seniors who fell short of their personal goals. Yet it was still another productive season for the program and proof that Stansbury & Co. could not only survive tougher times but somehow thrive.

We ought to have known it would not be an easy winter as early as October, when all-America Lawrence Roberts had a frightening neck injury to open preseason drills. The forward/center would get used to playing hurt as the week before the season his nose was busted in another practice, sidelining him one game (he had to sit out the opener anyway for taking travel money to attend a summer pro camp, before opting to return to school.) The roster was already shortened by delays in certifying transfer guard Jamall Edmondson.

This set a season-long tone, because when both returned to health and/or eligibility it necessarily disrupted what rhythm had been developed. Even welcome additions like those meant changes and adjustments for a team that, we now know, had a hard enough time fitting together even in good times. That the Dogs were 14-2 after the first week of January, with losses only to ranked foes Syracuse and Arizona on technically neutral (hah!) courts, shows what they might have ultimately achieved…

…if not for the season-turning injury to Winsome Frazier. A little broken foot-bone had a huge impact on how the year played out, and not just for Mississippi State but the whole SEC. The month Frazier missed gave control of the West to Alabama and LSU, and weeks after return the team's best shooter and backcourt defender was still never 90% of his full self. The fact that State split eight games without Frazier might be the best measure of the grit instilled in the program, even on a roster lacking chemistry and cohesion. It is also cause to sigh over what might have been had the lineup been full-strength all season.

As it was the Bulldogs still did notable regular-season things such as whipping Florida, sweeping Arkansas home-and-away, and continuing a winning streak at Mississippi's expense. They extended the school standard for 20-win seasons and winning SEC seasons to four year and got that fourth-straight NCAA bid. Roberts averaged a double-double despite defenses collapsing around him due to lack of outside offense. He repeated as first-team All-SEC and swingman Shane Power made second team. Four-year seniors Frazier and center Marcus Campbell became the ‘winningest' Bulldogs ever with 97 career victories. And 25-year-old Ontario Harper, maybe the eldest Dog ever to suit up, left with 89 wins in an interrupted tenure.

The problem was this veteran lineup just didn't have enough healthy horsepower in March to get past the second rounds of the SEC or NCAA tourneys. And while younger Dogs such as Edmondson, Dietric Slater, Wes Morgan, and Gary Ervin played their roles it was evident all along that too much just had to be force-fit for five long months. Worse, contributions by touted true frosh Walter Sharpe and Charles Rhodes were mostly minimal and more often disruptive both on and off the court.

In fact, those kids sparked the most chaotic post-postseason of Stansbury's tenure as they, along with redshirt Jerrell Houston and Ervin, all threatened to transfer out by summer. In the end only two-year point guard Ervin did, to Arkansas, though Sharpe lost fall semester eligibility and has to get out of junior college in August with enough hours to play by mid-winter. And that is if Stansbury allows the enigmatic postman back on the roster.

Because despite losing six players (five to graduation) who accounted for all but seven of 170 combined starts, not to mention 80% of the team's scoring, the coach is confident of having a roster not only able to compete but to contend again in 2006. Even losing superstar guard Monta Ellis to the NBA before the kid could ever suit up for a college game doesn't diminish Stansbury's faith in both the players he does have and his own ability to put another winning team together. After all, he's done it before.

Recall two summers ago, when a veteran State team had a vaguely disappointing season and lost centerpiece Mario Austin, explosive guard Derrick Zimmerman, and scorer/rebounder Michal Ignerski. Then the NBA grabbed away not only prep phenom Travis Outlaw but a touted Polish forward turned pro in Europe. Expectations for 2003-04 fell through the floor with fans and foes alike. But the year turned out quite nicely after all, though naturally it helped having Roberts all but fall in State's lap.

The point remains valid, that Mississippi State has been built to a point where total rebuilds are a thing of the past. And along that line let's not forget that while Stansbury has taken State to unprecedented levels of consistent success, he didn't exactly start from scratch. Without the foundation work of Richard Williams, performed under even less-promising circumstances back when it was an open question if MSU could play in this league, it's a legitimate question where the Bulldogs would stand today. Even devout Dog fans might be surprised to realize that going back to 1989-90 State has had winning records in 12 of the last 16 seasons.

Stansbury has been a part of 15 of those years, eight as an aide and the last seven in overall charge. We would go back four decades to find anything comparable to these past four seasons. We've also come to expect more of the same if not a bit better each succeeding season. So even though there are more unprovens, unknowns, and unpredictables on this summer's roster than usual, confidence can be justified.

The primary need is for better perimeter scoring and losing non-shooter Ervin makes it possible for progress here. Edmondson is trimming down the pounds to where he can again be the shooter he was in juco while still handling the point. It would take 200% improvement to even imagine Slater as a ‘shooter' but the marvelous athlete can score in other ways and might slide to more of a forward role if incoming guards live up to billing. Jamont Gordon (whose eligibility was still awaiting certification at this writing) was signed to play two-guard immediately. There is more new backcourt blood in talented twins Richard and Reginald Delk, both well-grounded in the game and with reputed potential as they mature. And while there is some uncertainty about his qualifying, nobody questions the ability of late signee Jeremy Wise to shoot a basketball.

So even allowing for lack of general experience, it's hard not to expect improved guard play in 2005-06. The wings are somewhat more problematic as Power and a healthy Frazier made a strong tandem. Slater's athleticism is a good starting point while Reggie (the swingman of the two) fits in to college plans. After years in mop-up duty Michael Boler appears entirely ready for a bigger role, with the skills to get it done on offense and a more physical frame for defense and rebounding. And speaking of bulking up, the lanky Houston only needs some more upper-body muscle to go with his agility and perimeter talents to make a redshirt-impact.

No, nobody can replace the points and boards Roberts provided. Of course we said that about Austin…and Robert Jackson before him, and about Tyrone Washington. Every time State seems to have a void in the middle, Stansbury inserts a newer, younger big body who can score and rebound in bunches. The difference this time is State is counting on a brand-new true freshman to take over immediately, with no apprenticeship to an elder big-body. The kid is Vernon Goodridge, a 6-9 bruiser groomed by years in the brutal Brooklyn and Philadelphia prep leagues. He's not likely to be intimidated by opposition down South.

He also will have help and State insurance. Wesley Morgan has been patient, spending four years building up his body and confidence, and now as a junior (on appeal) the 7-2 center is bigger, tougher, meaner, and has earned the right to contend for starting duty in the pivot. He will certainly be an improvement on the unpredictable Campbell. And after being lost in the lineup shuffle as a soph, 6-9 Piotr Stelmach should have no problems fitting right back into the frontcourt rotation. He's smart, has 240 pounds of matured muscle, and just needs minutes to show the skills of a European game upbringing.

But of course the forward/center with the most sheer upside is Rhodes. In limited (by his own behavior) freshman minutes the 235-pounder displayed incredible paint-potential. The kid can be a SEC monster at each end, able to take the ball at the hole or swat shots away with equal explosiveness. It is just a matter of polishing all those raw skills, and after surviving essentially a lost rookie season Rhodes appears to have his attitude under control and his priorities ordered.

Sharpe's situation is harder to evaluate; his talent is not. The 6-9 youngster is more a center than forward but agile and a bit stronger than he looks. If he were to have a similar ‘conversion' of heart and mind, not to mention take care of academic duties, Sharpe would give Mississippi State perhaps the best young baseline lineup in the SEC or perhaps the country. But that's a big if here in late June.

Besides, while fans naturally focus on youthful promise, Stansbury's track--make that, court--record forecasts playing things safe with veterans well into SEC season anyway. But sooner or later the pups are going to race to the forefront, and where Mississippi State finishes next spring…not to mention in years to come…will be determined by their talents. What the coach will focus this fall's attention on is smoothing off any remaining rough attitude edges, to hopefully forestall the bad-chemistry issues that did as much to slow the Dogs last year as the bad breaks.

Just don't expect Stansbury to pay attention to any pre-season respect, or lack thereof, that prognosticators and opinionators show. His program is so used to fighting for a place in the NCAA spotlight that they really don't know any other way to get there…which they usually do.

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