Stansbury Ready To Tip Off Preseason

The thermometer still reads in the high 80s and few leaves show signs of fading, much less falling. But in one week, preparations for the winter game begin as Coach Rick Stansbury and the basketball Bulldogs open their preseason practices. The coach, fresh off a long recruiting trip, met with Dawgs' Bite to discuss the coming camp and season.

DB: How eager are you and the staff to begin real hands-on work at practices?

Stansbury: I'm just glad to be off the road. I've been away a long time from the team. We've had great leadership with guys taking care of business while we've been out of here the last three-four weeks. My veteran guys, Charles Rhodes and Jamont Gordon, have been very good with leadership. And my three sophomores—Jarvis Varnado, Ben Hansbrough, and Barry Stewart—have all been terrific. And we've been fortunate again with a class of freshmen that have taken care of their business. Zero problems.

Everybody eats breakfast together in the morning, our class attendance has been unbelievable, they've been to study hall, to weights. That's always an indication to me, what are you doing outside those lines? There's a consistency in their lives that I think will carry over to the court.

DB: What is the practice schedule?

We'll start next Friday with one practice, and probably have one practice Saturday because it's a football weekend. But then we'll go two-a-days for the first two weeks. At the end of that we'll have a squad scrimmage, on October 27 sometime in the morning, maybe 9:00. That will be our only open public scrimmage.

DB: Was there consideration of a Friday evening event?

We thought about having a midnight practice to open the preseason but scheduling problems meant it wasn't feasible.

DB: Is everybody healthy to begin preseason?

Yeah. Brian Johnson has made some great strides health-wise getting his legs stronger, this is the first time he's really been able to lift heavy weights. He's down from about 250 to 235 and that's helped a bunch.

DB: There've good reports from the strength coach about all their summer work.

We couldn't get a couple of those freshmen in, Kodi Augustus and Elgin Bailey. Ravern Johnson and Riley Benock were here both terms and it was good for them. But weights have gone well and conditioning has gone well, and we'll transform all that into that into basketball here soon. We start next Friday.

We've put some weight on Jarvis and Barry. The biggest thing has been strength. Barry's weight hasn't gone up a whole lot, to 170, but his strength level has gone up tremendously. Jarvis is holding around 205 but is stronger now. When you get strength it helps with endurance.

DB: Going into practices what are some areas you expect to be team strengths this season?

Collectively, I think I've got some guys who can make some shots. I've got a good skill level, all my ‘bigs' have a good skill level. I think this has got a chance to be one of the better shooting teams we've had. I've got a lot of confidence in a lot of people, not just one or two. Even Jamont, he shot 36% from the three-point line last year, he's really improved. Ben Hansbrough shot in the 40s and no question the experience and confidence is going to happen him. And Barry is better.

And we've got some depth there, I think we've got three or four guys off that bench that are terrific shooters. Phil Turner, Ravern, Kodi, and Riley, that's four who can really shoot the basketball.

My biggest challenge with this team is we've got to understand the importance of defense and rebounding. It's obvious last year we were half-a-point from leading this conference in scoring. We were good in assists, the offensive categories were all good for the first time in my career. Defensively we were pretty good and we led the league in field goal percentage defense, but overall rebounding it wasn't one of my better teams. That's going to be an area of concentration. And toughness is the area we have to make up.

DB: A year ago you weren't certain Jamont Gordon would adapt to point guard. That's not a worry any more.

We saw a transformation in Jamont. It's a good feeling knowing you're going into a season with a guy who understands you've got to give that ball up to be a point guard. I talk to him about it all the time. That's where it starts with this team, to me. He's so valuable in everybody else's play. Nobody can keep him from getting to the paint and when he does he's making things happen.

DB: How has Rhodes responded to being passed over by the pros?

There's no substitute for the experience Charles has or what he went through with the NBA, realizing ‘that's where I want to be but here's where I'm at'. I've had people say Coach, how are you going to motivate Charles? I say if I have to motivate Charles Rhodes we're both in trouble! But to this point Charles has shown some maturity. I think he's gotten better in some areas. He's handled conditioning very well, better than he ever has. That's an indication to me.

DB: How good can he be?

The biggest thing with Charles Rhodes is he needs to become consistent with his effort. If he'll just play hard, then all those things we talk about will take care of itself. Playing hard, taking care of rebounding, becoming a better defender. If you do that, offensively you're making more things happen, you're getting some easy baskets, some putbacks, you're outrunning people in transition. I'm not talking about skill things, effort level changes productivity at both ends.

And Charles has more competition this year. I've got more versatility and flexibility with Brian and Jarvis, and Kodi. Last year I just had Charles and Vernon Goodridge, and all Vernon had to do was spell Jarvis. Charles has to be more consistent with his play because we have more depth and competition on that back line.

DB: How is Varnado progressing as a more-complete player?

He's gotten stronger, and I think he's better in every area. He can score better. He doesn't get knocked off-balance quite as much. He's still not where he needs to be strength-wise but he's made progress and that will help defending, rebounding, and scoring the ball. And shot-blocking is just a natural thing for him. When he starts getting 25, 28 minutes a game I don't think the career blocks record will be a question before he leaves here.

DB: Would you rather Varnado stay in low post and Rhodes move around, or vice-versa, or what?

I think our team is different this year. We've played awful small the last two years with Dietric Slater and Jamont at four. Now the makeup of our team is going to allow us play bigger a little more often. We've got to put our guys, all of them, in positions that play to our strengths. With Charles and Jarvis we're able to do some things stepping out, if you have another down there then Charles has to move out.

Charles needs to be a double-figure rebounder for us. Jarvis will be a more physical rebounder, and Brian Johnson has all those elements. He does a little of everything, he can shoot it, post it, he passes it. And he's a team guy. Remember how he was the first guy off the bench to greet everybody? He brings a lot of versatility and even though he's a sophomore he brings some experience to you. If he never scores a point or gets a rebound he helps your team from a leadership standpoint with his ability to work and verbalize things.

DB: What does Elgin Bailey add to the roster?

I think we got a steal with that kid. The things I thought about him, I see already. He's physically and mentally tough. You look at him, he's 6-8 and checked in at 267, but he's not a plodder in the post. He's a runner, and he has great skills. Great skills. He has great feet. He's got to get better in the post but he can step out and make a shot.

DB: Well, Charles thinks he can go out and make long shots, too.

We joked around about that a couple of weeks ago. He said he wanted to shoot the three, I said Charles, look at this lifetime three-point shooting chart, I don't see your name!

DB: Hansbrough and Stewart have their names on that list, I assume.

They'll be wings, ending up where they played last year. Our twos and threes are all the same, no difference. The only way it's determined who is what is basically who they guard. No question both are better.

Ben is more relaxed and will be a consistent. Barry, I think he's got a chance to really step up and be tremendous for us. He's that ‘next guy'. You look at the team with two big scorers right now, he's a guy that got you nine points in 21 minutes last year. We can all look at that and say that kid is going to be better. He can score in so many different ways. The strength level will help his game, the confidence he gained from last year. And we have a lot of confidence in him.

DB: You said something interesting, that Hansbrough is ‘relaxed.' What does that mean?

He plays so hard and intense. Now his role has changed and is defined a lot better. Last year we played him at the point early and then at the two. Over on the wing, it allows him to do what he does best, shoot and score. We may move him back-and-fourth at the one. He's a great free throw shooter and third in attempts. Because he has no problem putting a body on somebody. He has a variety of ways to score. And he brings that toughness element I like. We'll get him better defensively.

DB: You've often talked about Turner. How will he contribute after redshirting?

He's one of our most improved players not just physically but mentally. He's grown up a lot as a person, I've never questioned his work ethic. He brings a high skill level and versatility to your team. What he is yet I don't know, but I know he can make a shot, he's athletic, he can put it on the floor and get to the rim. I think he can play about three different positions out there. He's going to give us great depth there.

DB: Speaking of depth, what will we see from the three other new kids?

Ravern is 6-7, 6-8, a wing guy. He's at 177 pounds. But he's got some strength already, he just needs to get stronger. He's long, he jumps up on that shot, and he can flat shoot the basketball. Kodi was 225 and I noticed he dropped to 217. That's good, that's some bad weight off him. He's got a chance to as good-shooting a big guy as we've ever had. He can really shoot the basketball. We've got to toughen him up, get him stronger. We've got to teach him how to rebound and defend and the toughness you have to do it with, but he has a lot of confidence he can shoot the basketball.

And Riley Benock, sometimes in recruiting you just have to be right more than you're wrong. Here's a kid who fell through the cracks, but we weren't wrong. He's come in and surprised all of us. A terrific shooter, not just off the bounce but off the catch. He's probably more athletic than we anticipated, shown some toughness. He's got to get stronger and more aggressive but I couldn't be more pleased with where he is at this point.

I just named three guys who, all three of them, can give you instant baskets shooting the ball in the hole. Now if we get them to the point where they can defend and rebound with urgency and toughness, they'll become terrific players. But one thing they do right now that gives them a chance is they can shoot the basketball.

DB: What are the goals for this team, this season?

Our goals are the same every year. I don't set any limits by saying let's win a certain number of games. The way we strive is this, to work as hard every day as we can to be the best we can be. And the Ws and Ls take care of themselves. But I think it's obvious this team after what it did last year this team has a chance to compete for a championship. If you do that, everything else takes care of itself.

DB: Do you ever stop to think of beginning your 10th season as head coach at Mississippi State?

It's amazing, it seems like yesterday. I don't give it a lot of thought, Dave. It's amazing how nine years have run together. It's just gone fast, and every year is different, every team is different. I feel more energized, and no question the more experience you have as a coach you feel it makes you better. That's a long time. But it's been great so far.

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