Q and A with Coach Phil Cunningham

Mississippi State assistant basketball coach Phil Cunningham talks about the MSU guards, the talent level in the Mississippi high schools and the new NBA age limit.

Q: How would you compare Jamont Gordon's play from last year to this year so far?
Phil Cunningham: I think Jamont has come a long way from last year. His biggest adjustment this season was to get the mentality of a pass-first point guard and then look to score. That was his focus over the entire summer and preseason. But then Charles Rhodes got hurt and we moved Jamont from the point some to the four spot. And that position always needs a scorer. Those are two roles that are very difficult to go back and forth to. At one spot we need him to be aggressive and look to score and another spot we need him to pass first and look for the open guy. Now that Charles is back and Jamont is playing more point, we still need him to look to score but also have that mentality of pass first. These are difficult things to ask from a player with those two roles.

Q: How have the Delk twin improved this year?
Cunningham: First of all they are very long and athletic and that helped us right off the bat last year with them. They were not anywhere close to where they needed to be last year as freshmen but they had to play a lot of minutes. The fundamentals of the game were not hammered into them yet at that point. But now, their defensive play has improved so much and they know the game so much better. Now you have that plus the fact they are still long and athletic. Both are playing good defense right now. And offensively, they have gotten in the weight room with Coach Richard Akins and that added strength has helped their game on that end. It's helped them with their confidence and their ability to drive it to the hole and they can score more now off the dribble.

Q: Having recruited Ben Hansbrough and Barry Stewart and already knowing of the rookie guards and their potential, have you been surprised by anything they've done so far this season?
Cunningham: With Barry, we saw his steadiness in high school and were not surprised by that. We saw his calm and great demeanor on the floor. The most surprising thing has been his production to this point. You don't find too many freshmen that have his confidence. Just like the Ole Miss game. We are at a point where we could have broken down and led by just one point. But he made that big shot and completely turned the game around for us. And that's a freshman out there looking calm and hitting a game-changing shot.

Q: How is Ben Hansbrough adjusting to coming off the bench again?
Cunningham: He handles all the changes well and we never worry about an attitude problem with Ben. He knows what his role is and is always going to give 110 percent and work harder than anybody. Of course, all these guys want to start and that's all they ever knew in high school. I think Ben's biggest adjustment has come on defense. In high school, he was a two guard and not a point guard. So he was guarding a lot in the post and other two guards. He's not used to the quickness of SEC point guards and having to defend them on a nightly basis. But we know Ben will make the adjustments and keep getting better. That's something we don't have to worry about.

Q: Last year's team shot 48 percent from the field and 31 percent beyond the arc. This year's squad is currently shooting 48 percent from the field and 37 percent beyond the arc. What's the biggest difference?
Cunningham: I think the difference is definitely the depth we have in the perimeter. If one guy struggles, it doesn't mean we are necessarily in trouble. We have five guards back there and one or two of them should have a good night. We have the luxury of having a lot of guys that can shoot the three and that can help make up for a lot. And these guys have helped our chemistry, the freshmen coming in. Of course, Barry played with the Delk twins for two years in AAU basketball in the summer so that really helps with the chemistry. And of course, Ben is a team-first guy. It's hard on coaches to balance minutes when you have five guys back there but with their attitudes of helping the team first, that goes a long way for our chemistry.

Q: Has the recruiting talent increased or decreased in Mississippi?
Cunningham: Mississippi will always have great talent. The problem over the last 10 years is that three of those guys (Travis Outlaw, Al Jefferson and Monta Ellis) have been too good and too talented and went to the NBA. But looking at recruiting this year, its another strong crop and it looks like it will remain that way for awhile.

Q: How has the age limit rule in the NBA affected your recruiting?
Cunningham: A few years before the age limit, the only adjustment you had to make was recruiting big guys. We lost Travis Outlaw to the NBA and that made us not recruit Al Jefferson because we knew there was a good chance he would go to the NBA. And then with Monta and after that, the trend was that guards were starting to skip college and head straight to the NBA. We don't talk about it a lot as a staff. But we will still recruit that caliber of player even if there's a possibility you have him for just one season. And there's a lot of schools doing that now, recruiting and signing guys they know may not be around but for one season. If there's a kid out there on that level, we will certainly recruit that type of player.

Paul Jones is a writer for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. Paul, also a sports writer for the Columbus Commercial Dispatch, can be reached by email at pjones@cdispatch.com.

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