I'll let an expert tell you what he thinks of this year's team. "This team is really good," said an NBA official that I recently talked to at one of MSU's games. Very strong words from someone who evaluates college talent for a living.
But can they become more than a 'really good' team, one that can do what the 1995-1996 Bulldog team did, go to the Final Four? Strong words I know, but let's take a look at the evolution of the 1995-1996 team.
Since most of the players on the team didn't start their MSU careers until 1993-1994 or later, I'll start with that season.
The 1993-94 season saw the Bulldogs win 18 and lose 11. They were 9-7 in the SEC, which earned them third place in the SEC West. In the SEC Tournament they defeated Tennessee, then lost to Kentucky. Their record was good enough to earn them an invitation to the NIT, where they went one and out.
Not too shabby by then MSU standards, but the return of senior forwards Marcus Grant and Brian Price, the emergence of lightly-recruited sophomore Darryl Wilson as a legit three-point threat at the two-guard and the defensive presence of freshman Erick Dampier in the middle was setting the table for even bigger and better accomplishments for the next season.
And they didn't disappoint.
The team started out by winning 6 of 8 non-conference games. Then, they really took off, winning nine of eleven games, including SEC road victories over Georgia and LSU. After suffering a set back by losing to Auburn at home by one point, the Bulldogs shocked the SEC by posting road victories over Kentucky and Tennessee back to back.
The team followed those two victories with a home win over Vanderbilt and a road win over Ole Miss before losing to Auburn yet again, this time on the road. With a regular season ending victory over Alabama, their overall record stood at 20-6 and 12-4 in the SEC (good enough for SEC Co-West Champions) going into post-season play.
A 16-point loss to Florida in the SEC Tournament slightly dampen the spirits of Bulldog fans, but an invitation to the NCAA Tournament got the home folk to talking Bulldog basketball in a serious way.
While only the most dedicated fans could make the trip to see their 'Dogs play in Boise, Idaho, they were rewarded with two victories over Santa Clara and Utah thanks to a strong offensive performance by junior Darryl Wilson (51 total points) and a strong defensive performance by sophomore Erick Dampier. The two wins sent the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16, a first for MSU basketball.
Their time in the NCAA Tournament ended, however, with a 86-67 loss to the eventual national champion UCLA Bruins.
But the table was set for the most anticipated season in MSU basketball history.
The talented duo of Darryl Wilson and Erick Dampier were returning for their senior and junior seasons. The signing of Dontae' Jones gave MSU a strong offensive threat at the forward position. Marcus Bullard and Russell Walters were ready to take over the starting spots left vacate by T. J. Honore and Brian Price. Whit Hughes was back to provide leadership on the bench and the court. Talented freshmen signees Tyrone Washington and Bart Hyche looked to provide depth.
The national spotlight was on the MSU basketball program. ESPN2 televised MSU's version of Midnight Madness. Over 8,500 fans were in attendance to watch the midnight practice. AP's preseason rankings had the Bulldogs 9th nationally.
The Bulldogs continued their 'madness' with a 121-78 victory over Southeastern Louisiana. They followed that with three more victories before stumbling with a last second loss to Arkansas-Little Rock. But the team didn't allow their fans time to absorb the loss because they reeled off six straight victories, including SEC road wins at LSU and Florida.
The team would then slump, losing four of five SEC games. But they would then win five straight SEC games before closing out the record season with three victories in their last five games.
With the SEC West Championship in hand, they headed to New Orleans for the SEC Tournament. Kentucky fans were already anticipating the tournament championship by wearing t-shirts that proclaimed the Kentucky Wildcats the champions.
After defeating Auburn and Georgia, the Bulldogs set up a rematch with Kentucky, a team that had defeated MSU 74-56 at the Hump earlier in the season. But Kentucky was the one that left the court with a loss this time, losing to the Bulldogs 84-73.
MSU was not only SEC West Champions, but also SEC Tournament Champions. And headed to the NCAA for the second year in a row.
Like the previous season, they got by their first two opponents to earn an invitation to the Sweet 16. But unlike the previous season, they were hungry for more than a quick visit.
The NCAA, however, didn't make it easy because the Bulldogs were placed in one of the toughest regionals with the likes of Connecticut and Cincinnati. But MSU won by 5 over Connecticut and 10 over Cincinnati thanks to a tenacious defense that held both opponents to a combined 33% shooting.
MSU was now headed to the Final Four for the first time in school history.
Their dream season ended with an eight-point loss to Syracuse in the Final Four National Semifinals.
Other than talented players such as Wilson, Dampier and Jones, what were the ingredients that produced such a great three-year run?
I've come up with a few things that separate those three teams when compared to all other MSU teams.
1) Defense - MSU held its opponents to shooting percentages of .391, .383 and .385 during that three-year period. You would have to go back to 1961-62 to find a better defensive shooting percentage. And that team went 24-1.
2) Blocked Shots - To this day, Dampier's shot blocking stats remain atop the history charts. He blocked 3.1 per game in 1995-96, 2.6 in '94-95 and 2.2 in '93-94. Those are 1st, 2nd and tied for 4th in the MSU history books.
3) 3-Point Shooting - During the three-year period, the team made more three-pointers every year than any other time in school history, up to that point, other than the 1989-90 season. The 1994-95 and 1995-96 teams made 240 and 214 three-point shots, which remain 1 and 2 in school history. The three-point field goal percentages for those years (.384 and .373) are number 1 and number 3 in school history.
4) Experience - The Final Four team's starting unit consisted of three seniors, one junior and one sophomore.
5) Coaching - Richard Williams won more games than any other coach in school history, including five postseason appearances and three 20+ win seasons.
6) NBA Players - Two of the players, Erick Dampier and Dontae' Jones, were both drafted by the NBA. Erick is still playing, while Dontae' lasted one season.
So, does this year's team have the same potential as far as the above ingredients are concerned?
Against non-SEC caliber opponents, the opponents field goal percentage is .351. Of course, when SEC play rolls around that will go up, but there is potential thanks to the defensive presence of sophomore Vernon Goodridge, who has the same body type as Erick Dampier. And the guard toughness of Jamont Gordon, Richard and Reginald Delk and Ben Hansbrough. True freshman Jarvis Varnado, although lacking bulk, also has a defensive presence about him in the middle, but that leads me to the next category ....
Known as a shot blocking machine in high school, Jarvis has carried that reputation to the collegiate level. Over the course of the first 11 games, he is averaging 2.8 per game, which is 4th in the SEC. However, MSU is currently first in the SEC as a team, with three players (Varnado, Goodridge and Rhodes) among the top 16 shot blockers. No other team has more than two.
MSU is currently making 7.9 three pointers per game. And 7.4 of those are being made by either freshmen (Ben Hansbrough, Barry Stewart) or sophomores (Richard Delk, Reginald Delk, Jamont Gordon). MSU's three-point shooting percentage is currently .382.
The current team's lineup includes three sophomores and two freshmen. The current immediate backups include a junior, sophomore and freshman.
Current MSU head coach Rick Stansbury was Richard Williams' chief recruiter. Counting the 9 wins this season, his teams have won 173 games, which is 18 behind Richard Williams. He has led MSU to five 20+-win seasons, 4 NCAA Tournament appearances and 2 NIT invitations. And he's done this in only 8 full seasons and part of another one. And like Williams had with Stanbury, Stansbury has with two recruiters supreme, Robert Kirby and Phil Cunningham.
I'll go back to what the aforementioned NBA official said. According to him, at least three current players, if they continue to develop, have the potential to be drafted in the 1st round and play in the NBA.
Now, based on the above facts and speculation you be the judge. Do you think the current group of players have the potential to lead MSU back to the Final Four?
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.