From The Dawghouse

It's a bit preliminary, not to say presumptious, to proclaim that championships of any sort must go through him. Yet it's also completely clear Mississippi State's season and post-season plans do hang on the aptitudes and hinge on the attitudes of Charles Rhodes.

Exhibit A: this afternoon's exhibition in Knoxville. I say ‘exhibition' even though the game of course counts because both teams played, and I use the word loosely, defense as if it were a pre-season event. Oh, the Vols are that good at putting up points, thus it's rather encouraging the way the Bulldogs did as well in their SEC opener. 61% shooting for the first half? A second-period outburst of both made-treys and transition play against a team that thrives on up-tempo? State went to Tennessee and darn near beat the Vols at their own game.

But didn't quite. And maybe it's another sign of aging or that This Opinionater is increasingly jaded, but I can't work up any sense of ire over the officiating. Not an issue to my mind, just life on the road and good coaches include that in the game prep. Which State does, according to the coach. Not being able to observe practices we can't say, though that isn't the main reason why I wish I could witness a few workouts now. I really want to watch Brian Johnson, the redshirting center from Louisville, on the court. It would help in deciding just how much I hope Rhodes returns for a senior season.

OK, that's a bit overstated. Because I do like Charles both as a player and a person. He might speak a bit more than is wise when the microphones are turned on, but what writer would object to that? Especially as Rhodes is a good ‘quote' both for us and, in my humble opinion, for his team…usually. He's much more thoughtful than some excerpts which make print might read and often offers real insights into the game, the team, himself, etc. that merit regard. I just hope that his rather stout statements of last week don't result in a quote-quarantine.

Yet what matters more to Rick Stansbury and teammates is having their best and most experienced frontcourt Dog walking his talk on-court. More to the point, doing it both at games and in practices, within the team format…and from start-to-finish. Oh, it's no small feat to lead the team in scoring off the bench as Rhodes has done twice in the last four games. Rather impressive actually. But it also leads to the obvious conclusion that Rhodes should be putting up points and pulling down rebounds within moments, not minutes, of tip-off.

To do so, though, means living up to the head coach's expectations of a veteran on this youthful roster. Stansbury sets criteria for membership on the tip-off team and as of the start (no pun intended) of SEC season Charles hasn't met them. Coach won't say why, either, though back in December he did tell me that Rhodes would play by his, Stansbury's, schedule. Admittedly I've wondered in the last couple of weeks if the coach was going a bit far in proving a point, and if it was costing Mississippi State a couple of Ws that will be missed come March. Still Stansbury's track record in these matters is pretty darn good…and any coach who seeks lineup advice from the press corps would have his courtesy car repossessed, pronto. So I won't bend his ear about, say, finding more playing time for Barry Stewart—assuming he's up-to-speed defensively.

Detouring down that track for a moment, I confess to concerns that the return of Dietric Slater might disrupt the tentative teamwork taking shape amongst the backcourt sophs and juniors. Two games in and no complaints…yet. We'll watch this one of course as there are too many troubling memories of the past two seasons, not to mention the need to keep developing younger guards for the future.

Right, back to the frontcourt. How long before this contest of wills ends and Rhodes is starting, in whatever combination results? Still a four-guard set, or beside Jarvis Varnado in a more typical tandem? Though it's worth adding that weekend viewing showed a whole lot of leagues now have starting lineups without true ‘centers.' I hope Charles sees how close he is to re-gaining his expected role, yet there are still frustrating signs we all get to see. Don't know how many of y'all at the December game in Jackson noticed, but while State's starters were being introduced I watched Rhodes instead. Facial expressions, body language, everything displayed his displeasure at not taking tipoff in front of his home folk. That surely played no small part in how, once let on the court, Rhodes took over the evening with his best effort of the year. I suspect watching Varnado swatting all those shots and almost going for a triple-double was further incentive, too.

But the SEC schedule has begun and the challenges are bigger, so to speak. For his part Varnado is, or better be, learning that blocking shots is not necessarily the same thing as playing good defense. In fact many of his pre-SEC swats came when the rookie was beaten for position around the rack; he could get away with it against lesser foes but not now. I don't expect Varnado to be a bulwark in the paint just yet, not until he's securely on the high side of 200 pounds. Still the fact is Rhodes's bigger and more experienced body is needed on the Bulldog baseline to defend shots and recover the rebounds.

From start to finish. Wednesday evening would be a good time to, umm, start, because the incoming Rebels played pretty good in the paint against Kentucky in their own opener before the Wildcats finally decided to take, and make, some outside shots. It only took a few minutes of TV time to see this is a much-improved Mississippi team playing with the zest and to some extent efficiency not seen last winter. These Rebs will a day more-rested and naturally hungry to take the rivals down in The Hump for the first time in ages. Which means Stansbury needs to have his very best combination of talent in action as many of the 40 clock-minutes as possible.

It's in Rhodes' court if he's to be on his home court from tip-to-horn for this game.…

I'm not a fan of Fox's work with the college game at all as they seem intent on turning it into NFL-Lite in all aspects…probably a subtle attempt to influence development of that which would destroy the utterly unique nature of this campus sport. I.E., a playoff system, which we won't debate today. Monday's championship game oughta been played last week, Wednesday at the latest, though I'm still old-fashioned enough to prefer a standard January 1 plethora of classic bowls and the title game the next evening. That's what should be done, as well as turning the games over entirely to ABC/ESPN so we don't have to hear so many stupid sound effects and do get to see a better selection of sideline blondage, where Fox has earned a ‘F.'

Speaking of the sport… You've doubtless read on these boards subscriber discussions of anticipated changes to Mississippi State's staff. But, nothing in the way of an actual report. You're owed an explanation why not. Friday morning as I was getting some facts…well, not really even that, more like tips, rumors, and second-party reports…Gene called to ask that I not file any stories on the subject just yet. And it is his board, after all, with me the hired hand. Took a bit of debating just to get OK'd to write this much tonight.

Here's the latest summary, subject to daily change. There will be two new position coaches joining the 2007 staff. That doesn't include the new strength coach who hasn't been announced either but is going to be Ben Pollard, formerly of Texas A&M and before that Alabama. He should be on the job shortly, and it's his good luck that spring practice opens early this year so he'll have that much more time to get his variation on a standard strength program in place for post-camp work. In fact this might work out very well for everyone involved as there should be even more carry-over into summer work.

Now, as to the new aides…I'm still told not to give names even though they're already floating out there. Or at least one is; another wasn't as of Sunday afternoon. Sorry to be so intentionally vague, gang, just following orders. It isn't that this is a deep, dark mystery or anything, but more a reflection of the good working relationship this site enjoys with this football staff. And, of Coach Sylvester Croom's admirable attitude about helping his assistants in their careers even when hard decisions must be made.

See, new coaches—and their specific duties--can't be announced until there are actual vacancies to fill. Croom has made his decisions but, with the national coaches convention now underway in San Antonio, he'd like to give the outgoing guys every chance to make connections and find 2007 jobs. Plus there's this teensy little matter of state employee hiring policies, about having to advertise openings before filling them. Yeah, waivers are almost always granted when it comes to athletics, but you do give at least a nod to the protocols and such.

The other fact is, Croom might have another unplanned vacancy to fill if Shane Beamer is offered and accepts an Alabama job. And with the blank checks being tossed around in Tuscaloosa these days—another issue for another talk—the unsolicited resumes arriving over there must be tackle-high by now. I've no insight on what Shane will do, as he's the very rare young coach with the luxury of knowing he'll always have opportunities to climb the profession's ladder and could actually afford to say no even to such a job. But any offer there will be hugely hard to turn down. Which would mean yet another hiring and accompanying adjustments to staff responsibilities before spring camp. Much less the potential complications to wrapping up recruiting.

And I'll add this. While these projected staff changes do of course involve upgrading on-field performance in all aspects, most obviously special teams as well as tackling and catching, recruiting is of equal and likely greater import. Croom knows Mississippi State must keep improving the process of evaluating, courting, and signing talent. His staff(s) have made genuine progress each year but the fact also is in that span State has managed to get up to SEC-speed and not gain enough ground on league peers. It's good to no longer be falling behind; winning requires catching up a lot faster than has been the case. And that means upgrading the total talent on the roster everywhere. No, State won't ever be as deep as the LSUs and Floridas for all sorts of well-repeated reasons. But State can recruit to put a complete lineup of SEC-class starters on the field with, hopefully, just enough depth to survive some modest bad breaks.

So it will be worth noting once the changes come how the recruiting duties and areas are adjusted for the next courting-campaign. For now we can hope any changes don't impact on the current lineup of commitments as well as those prospects still in-play. By convention's end this week we'll know more about staff goings-and-comings, even if it ain't official. Just thought y'all deserved some sort of explanation.

And From The Cheap-Shot Dept...

Oh, and one irresistible snipe at our neighbors to the east. Y'all surely saw the story of that ditzy chick caught planting a smooch on Alabama's new coach, who was later busted for DUI. I was e-discussing the event with a friend who said, obviously, that woman had to be a member of Alabama's media corps which is busy pledging allegiance to the coach.

I emailed back no, if that were a Tide beat reporter she'd have been kissing him on a cheek at his other end. Note: this doesn't include you, Ian…

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