Basketball Will Light Up the Hump This Season

Following the uplifting Bulldog football victory against 14th ranked Kentucky, many Mississippi State fans gathered inside the Hump Saturday for their first opportunity to see this season's Bulldog basketball players in action as they faced off against one another in scrimmage games. And they saw exactly what Coach Stansbury had been saying about his team during his pre-season press conferences.

After the pre-season press conference that was held by Coach Stansbury on Monday and the SEC Basketball Media Days, those in attendance were understandably eager to view the players with their own eyes, especially due to Stansbury's comments about how well this team can shoot the ball.

"If you ask me one thing that stands out on this team right now, as much as any team to this point I've had, is our ability to shoot the basketball," Stansbury said during Monday's press conference. "I think we have several options to shoot the ball. I think we have a good skill level."

It didn't take long to see why Stansbury had been raving so much about his squad's shooting skills, after somewhat of a rocky start, that is. The team missed a considerable amount of shots during the beginning moments of the first 20 minute inter-squad scrimmage. Stansbury credited the slow start to the initial shock of playing in front of a crowd. "I thought when we started the scrimmage, since it was the first time that we had a few people out in the crowd, the players were really uptight, and so they couldn't make a shot early. But they loosened up and started playing."

The slow start then gave way to an offensive onslaught from many of the players. The offensive charge was led by preseason Naismith Award candidate Jamont Gordon. Gordon scored 20 of his 51 points during the opening 20 minute scrimmage game.

The Nashville, Tenn., native seemed to pick up in the scrimmage where he left off during the National Invitational Tournament at the end of last season. Gordon scored from the three point perimeter, where he went 5-for-11, slashed through the lane for a number of lay-ins, and made several trips to the charity stripe, where he went 18-for-21. The junior also corralled 11 rebounds and tallied 14 assists during the 52 total minutes of action.

But of course, that's to be expected when you're named to the first team preseason All-SEC team and tabbed by many as one of the top point guards in the country. The second leading scorer for the team in Saturday's scrimmage isn't quite as familiar of a name. Not yet, at least.

Phil Turner went 13-of-25 for a total of 37 points. Turner, a redshirt freshman from Grenada, was electric from behind the three-point line Saturday. He was 7-of-9 from behind the arc, burying shots while wide open, as well as making them with defenders' hands in his face. Scoring points isn't a problem for Turner, Stansbury said, but defense is.

"[Turner] jumps up on his shot, he shoots it deep, has the ability to put it on the floor, has the ability to get to the rim, and does a lot of different things," said the 10th year Bulldog head coach. "His biggest improvement has to come on the defensive side of the ball. My main focus with him at this point is having him to understand that when you come off that bench, you have to come in with that defensive mindset and get some stops. The offense can take care of itself."

Another player who contributed to the offensive play today was sophomore Jarvis Varnado. After a freshman campaign during which he was primarily known for defensive prowess, Varnado displayed his offensive talent Saturday by scoring 34 points on 12-of-20 from the field. He even showed some versatility after hitting a three-pointer near the end of one of the scrimmage games, which led to cheers from the Bulldog fans.

Varnado also notched a stellar defensive showing by leading the team with 20 rebounds and five swatted shots. Of course, the defense is to be expected, but Stansbury was happy with the sophomore's improvement on the offensive end. "He's gotten better offensively. He's gotten stronger and more aggressive, but we still need him to be stronger and more aggressive. There's no question he's much improved. He can be a factor in there now, not just defensively but offensively. He's a guy you've got to guard in there. He's also a very good passer in the post, and we like that about him."

Varnado's frontcourt companion, returning senior Charles Rhodes, tallied 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. The All-SEC player performed well, but Stansbury said he "would have liked to have seen Rhodes be more dominant in that game."

After being sidelined with a bruised thigh for most of the week, junior transfer Brian Johnson took the court and scored 11 points while grabbing six rebounds. The injury is totally unrelated to the knee injury that sidelined the big man earlier in his collegiate career, and Stansbury said he hopes the injury goes away soon because Johnson "is one of those big guys that we need to get in shape and get going because we need his mentality out there. He's a smart player and does a lot of the little things."

The sophomore guards Ben Hansbrough and Barry Stewart scored 20 points and 18 points, respectively. They also combined for 11 assists, with Hansbrough dishing six and Stewart dishing five. Freshman guard Riley Benock added 14 points during the scrimmage games, with 12 of those points coming from behind the three-point arc.

Benock's fellow freshman big men Kodi Augustus, who scored 17 points during the 52 minutes of play, and Elgin Bailey, who collected 16 points and 12 boards, made some mistakes during the scrimmage, but Stansbury said he's more worried about their effort than their execution at this stage in the season.

"It's been a tough adjustment for both of them," said Stansbury, who is only seven wins away from surpassing the school's all-time wins mark. "Going into weights and conditioning for the first time in August, I promise you neither of them have seen anything like it. But to their credit, both of them have gotten better. They have absolutely come miles in two weeks."

But the two are certainly shaping up to be the type of players that the coach expected them to be when he recruited them, with Augustus making tough shots with relative ease and Bailey fighting on the inside.

"One thing Kodi can do is really shoot the basketball," Stansbury said. "Elgin is getting better at doing some things we want him to do. He's got more of a toughness about him. It's just getting that big body in shape enough where he can run both ways over and over. But they have made progress, and that's all I can ask for at this point."

With all of the offensive shots that fell for the Bulldogs today, the main focus for Stansbury as he prepares for the remaining preseason slate is to improve on the defensive side of the basketball and to make sure the freshmen are ready for the start of the season.

"We've concentrated so much on defending and rebounding," Stansbury said. "We have made progress, but we have got a long way to go in those areas. I'm pleased with the progress some of those freshmen have made, but it's very obvious we've got a long way to go with the whole group."

The Bulldogs' first game against another team will come next Saturday, Nov. 3 at 2 p.m. against The University of the Cumberlands. The team then follows that match-up with another home exhibition game against Oklahoma City University on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Brent Wilburn, a sports reporter for the MSU student newspaper The Reflector, is the soccer beat writer for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the sports network.

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