I know, I know. Such an attitude verges on blasphemy in these parts. Even though it's been a while since Mississippi State went into a year legitimately talking championship--and that's an over-due issue for another day--opening a new season remains something special. To dare hint that one isn't entirely enthused about the prospect of bundling up for a winter's day at the ballyard is to risk allegations of heresy.
To which I can only plead an overloaded schedule. Please, put down the pitchforks and torches. (Though bring the firewood February 23 just in case; I've endured days at DNF where burning at the stake seemed tempting after about five frames.) There's just been too much going on of late, between an increasingly-intense month for Bulldog basketball and the triumphs of Signing Day, for your humble editor to be mentally or emotionally prepared for covering another team & season. Much less another press conference…unless we're promised that Ron Polk will steer clear of NCAA-bashing this time. I've gotten to where I don't turn on the tape recorder until about five minutes into his media-talks, which is usually the point he turns attention to his own ball club. And while I do completely comprehend the scholarship handicaps Mississippi State operates under, if #1 raises that as a reason the Diamond Dogs could struggle I might have to point out that Alabama, under equal restrictions, did win the SEC Championship last spring.
Actually, there are plenty good reasons to want to hear Polk discussing these Diamond Dogs on Wednesday. The last time I talked in-depth with Coach on the subject he was clear that there are significant questions about the 2007 lineup that might not be settled until mid-March and the start of SEC action. Specifically about the defense, which to my mind is the first concern for this season. I think the offense will be much better and the pitching sufficient. Now, after a week or so of practicing (and all salutations to guys able to hit a baseball with a metal stick or stay alert in the outfield during 30-degree conditions) maybe Polk can update these items.
Such as second base: is Jeffrey Rea staying there or moving to the outfield to get both he and Brandon Turner into the lineup and order? Will Turner have to play shortstop to do so, or is Ryan Powers going to win that spot after an injury-slowed fall? Is the other rookie Powers, true frosh Conner, firmly set at third base? Where will Russ Sneed fit into the infield picture? First base isn't as uncertain with Mitch Moreland supposed to start there and Brian LaNinfa DH, but confirmation is welcome. I know Ed Easley says he can play every game at catcher, but surely he'll get some days away from backstop and at third; how will that ripple through the lineup?
Assuming Rea stayed at second, the post-fall outfield had Andy Rice in right, transfer Mark Goforth in center, and redshirt Nick Hardy in left. Has anything changed since? And if not how to get Matt Richardson, or more accurately his bat, into the order? Or Joseph McCaskill for that matter. Is the offense going to be as good in spring as everybody claimed in fall ball?
We know Matt Lea and Jared Wesson are out for the season, so pitching depth isn't as great as it could be. Still there's plenty of starting arms if Aaron Weatherford is in that role; or will be be a slam-dunk closer instead? Is Moreland another closer or the set-up guy? Who will get the ball on Opening Day—Justin Piggott, Chad Crosswhite, Josh Johnson, John Lalor?
Those are the questions to be asked Wednesday; and while he might not have final answers for a while yet it will be good hearing which way(s) things are tending and trending. Best of all, the conference has been scheduled early enough that I should have the transcript up long before the main event of February 14. And we aren't talking talking candy and flowers.
One Silly Season…
We've tried ‘chaotic' and ‘bizarre' to attempt describing this SEC season as a whole and the Western Division in particular. Our adjective for today, kids, is ‘absurd.' And not simply because Ole Miss begins this week in a tie for first place, as strange as that would have seemed in saner times. This is one nonsensical season.
For which the Bulldogs should be entirely grateful. Under more normal circumstances they would be in big trouble at 4-6 SEC, almost certainly out of the first-day SEC Tourney bye picture and in dire post-season straits. Not in February 2007. Other than South Carolina, who surely won't; and Florida, who surely will, everybody else still has a legitimate goal of a top-two seeding in Atlanta and the NCAA advantage that comes with it.
Now don't interpret this as a claim Mississippi State is on-track for a bid. That's got to be the farthest thing from MSU-minds at this delicate point of the season. At 13-10 with an assured seven games left, my own thinking is these Bulldogs are much, much more likely to return to post-season play after a year's absence in that secondary tournament. The schedule strength isn't going to be so hot (note how George Mason is a mid-packer and both Clemson and Missouri not among their league's elites either), and State hasn't a single ‘signature' win to its credit. Had they not let Alabama go end-to-end for an unchallenged layup it would be a bit better of course.
But that's the sort of season it has been for this sort of squad, one very much still learning how to play a full game at full-intensity. And play together, period; even in their successful games the pieces somehow don't all mesh nicely, reflecting disparities in experiences and attitudes. At least the aptitudes are there, and against the one West squad State clearly over-matches it showed…on offense. Put another way, Charles Rhodes and Jamont Gordon really enjoy bullying less-physical foes around. It's when the Bulldogs meet lineups with a bit more muscle and enough perimeter punch to spread ‘em out that things get interesting. If that sounds like Wednesday's match with Arkansas, bingo.
Who'd have projected that Wednesday would be such a potentially-pivotal evening for the entire State season? Instead of merely marking the return of Gary Ervin to his former doghouse (hmmm, an apt if unintentional turn of phrase) it is a showdown of squads tied for third-West and trying to stay in striking distance of second. Or first for that matter, since it's entirely possible three West teams will go into the weekend 5-6 and tied for the top spot.
The Bulldogs have to be one of them if they seriously intend to play after Atlanta without winning it all there; which also hinges largely on a first-day bye. State simply can't afford to lose a fourth home SEC date or fall three games under .500 with three remaining road trips. Not even stealing games at LSU or Georgia (was that player hurt badly?) would offset the damage. It's almost as important for Arkansas of course, as with 15 wins their NCAA outlook is brighter and one more SEC road win will look awfully good on the record.
It still boggles the Bulldog mind though that with a Wednesday win this team really, truly could be a stretch-run contender to—dare we say it?—finish atop the Division, if in a messy tiebreak. That says as much about the hysterical state of SEC ball as it does about a State team that for all the letdowns, the last-minute lapses, and emotional crashes remains capable of playing pretty good ball no matter what grouping is on the floor. Yeah, maybe this whole league stinks anywhere outside Gainesville. I mean, how does a team with most of a Final Four lineup back find itself last in the Division? Well, other than lack of depth, ball-handling, and explosive scoring. The SEC isn't very good this year, but it is great fun to watch, eh?
Which is why these Bulldogs are also worth watching, and not just to watch a bunch of kids growing into collegians. I know Barry Stewart is struggling; it was inevitable for a 165-pound rookie and no mark against his career-potential. Ditto Jarvis Varnado who will only get better with age, though he needs to add a short-range jumper to the shot-blocking to balance out his game. It's definitely encouraging that Ben Hansbrough is finally getting more minutes at the point, his position of the future.
And let's give more kudos to Gordon, who is playing at an all-conference caliber. Odd, ain't it, how playing with a bit more restraint actually expands opportunities for numbers? Now if our man Charles will play against this week's big pivots with the same flair as at Auburn, instead of getting a couple of quick fouls and fading into the background, the Dogs have their chance to get it done this week. This very, very, very big week.
And This Parting Note…
I don't intend to make a big deal of the proposal to extend Larry Templeton's contract another, final year. Other than to note that while this will put to rest one persistent theme on the boards (of both opinions) it just opens the door to another that will fill the next 16-or-so months. Geeene, how ‘bout a separate board for this topic, huh?
All I care to comment at the moment actually springs from a bit of ironic fact. Three years ago Dr. Lee submitted a four-year extension; Templeton's contract was renewed, for three years. Now here in 2007 Dr. Foglesong reportedly will officially request a one-year addition to end a three-decade career in athletic administration.
Hmmm. Wouldn't this mean that the original proposal would be granted and fulfilled after all, albeit in this roundabout way? Which we might conceivably take to also mean that all along Larry had planned on turning over the reins after 2008? Have to ask about that when the appropriate time comes.