From The Dawghouse

We briefly interrupt this football season, and turn attention to another Mississippi State sport getting ready to get ready. Starting this Friday afternoon, in fact, when basketball opens preseason team practicing. I can't be there, as about the time the first fall whistle blows I hope to have arrived in Knoxville for the weekend's more immediate Bulldog business.

Still there's the natural interest in the whos, whats, and hows of this Mississippi State preseason. Finding time to talk with Rick Stansbury hasn't been easy for either of us, what with the coach spending more days out on the recruiting and speaking road recently than on campus, and my own obviously overriding obligations to football season. Luckily, this past week Stansbury was in the office for a few hours before heading out again. And between such matters as checking on pre-practice details and getting media guide photos shot, he carved out a half-hour to talk about his 11th Bulldog team.

It turned into more like an hour-fifteen talk, too. Much of it was for the pre-season D.B. magazine issue, but with practices opening this week it seems only right to offer a tithe of our talkings. Oh, and since we chatted I've been told by new hoops P.R. director Gregg Ellis (welcome back to shill-world, my friend) that the uncertainty Stansbury expresses herein about having any public scrimmages are still unsettled. It's a very tight preseason schedule this particular calendar, and with so much teaching required at some key spots Stansbury tends to prefer regular practicing to game-type scrimmaging. But, knowing the coach, I have to believe he'll find some way to put these pups on public display before the exhibition games. Stay tuned.

So, here's a sampling of what Rick had to say about this 2008 preseason's outlook. Oh, and while it's not recounted here, Stansbury will start his second decade as Mississippi State head coach with a thoroughly renovated office. Comfy chairs, those…

DB: What are your general thoughts about this team going into practices? "It's very obvious there's a lot of unknowns. We're young, we're inexperienced, and there's a lot of unknowns. Beyond the obvious, it's exactly how good some of these young kids are, and roles they're going to have to step up and play on a young team. We've been young in the past. We only had one senior last year, and we won the West. The year before that it was a sophomore-freshman team with Charles Rhodes as a junior. But we had two really dominant players last year in Charles and Jamont Gordon."

"We have some different kinds of players, we may not have anybody of that magnitude but I like our overall pieces. Again, we just have to find a way to overcome our youth and inexperience, and we've got to be able to do that with togetherness and toughness."

DB: What have you been told about summer play and pick-up games in fall? "I don't put a lot into reports from summer. Because they're different from the opinions I might like! The reports I like have nothing to do with playing; they have to do with work in the weightroom, the conditioning. Those are the areas that show mental toughness. I don't put a lot of stock in a guy telling me he's shooting the cover off! It's continuing to get better defending and rebounding and playing with the effort you need to play with."

DB: You do have one pretty special piece coming back in Jarvis Varnado. "That's a good place to start. This time last year he was coming off a good freshman season, but none of us anticipated him having the impact he had. Now I think we all have a lot more expectations for him, as he does for himself. Which in turn means he should come in with a lot of confidence. I think he's made improvement, he has a ‘hop' about him that he didn't have. And it's a good place to start with a team, too, is someone that can protect the basket the way he does."

DB: You've had many players who needed telling to be selective about shooting; it seems that he needs encouraging to shoot more. "I've got to make sure he's taking the shots we want him taking! They all sometimes want to get out and shoot that three-pointer. I know Jarvis made one last year and I'm not sure that's good that he did! But he has different ways he can go score. I think in the two-post guy offense you'll see a lot more of those moves than you have. And as time goes on and he gets comfortable knowing he's that go-to guy offensively there I think he'll improve as the season goes on."

DB: Barry Stewart did a good job fitting in with older guys for two years; can he step forward and be a leader now? "Barry has been a full-time starter for a year and as a freshman he got a lot of time. So he's coming back, on paper, as our most experienced player. Naturally you want to put them in a role that they're more assertive, especially on this young team. He has to step up and be more assertive. I think most players, that's where they want to be, that's a role they want to play, so I don't think we're asking them anything that's going to be a big adjustment for him. And I think him being able to play at the two-spot will help get a little (defensive) size off of him."

"He's recovering from that injury, it's probably slowed him up a little bit. But I think by the time the season rolls around he'll be pretty close to 100%."

DB: Who are the other players you are counting on? "It's pretty simple. There are three guys you can pretty much spell-out how they've got to become players in this program. It's not that I don't think any of them can't, they just have to do it. That's Ravern Johnson, Kodi Augustus, and Brian Johnson. They've been in our program at least. Phil Turner and Riley Benock gave us some minutes last year, probably more than some of the others. But those three are guys who because of our youth they have to step up and play the roles they want to play and this team needs them to."

DB: What do you want for Ravern's role? "What he can do and what I need him to do are probably two different things right now. But one thing he needs to do is make shots. He's long and athletic, and we need him to become a shut-down defender. And if he can become a better handler and passer he becomes a more complete player. He's not, like most people his age, so you ask him to do things he's best at doing. He'll guard a wing guy, he's 6-8 and long. He's not as strong as he needs to be, but he's stronger than he was. He's probably one of our most explosive players just from a standpoint of running and jumping. I don't know that he understands the mentality you have to have to utilize that. But you saw last year him dunking the ball on some people going down that middle. And he can get from end to end in a hurry."

DB: How has Augustus developed after limited action last year? "Naturally all freshmen want to play a bigger role than most of them are capable of or are given. It was an adjustment for him. The biggest challenge was just playing with the toughness and energy you have to at this level. He has great offensive ability, to put it on the floor or shoot the three-point shot as well as anybody we've had at the four-spot. But there is another end he's got to get better on, defending and rebounding. He got better as the year went on but it's a different role. How we play him will be based on once we get into practice and see how all the pieces fit together, the strengths and weaknesses of other players. Not just based on what he can do, but what other people can do, too."

DB: Brian Johnson accepted his role as a backup last year; what should he be able to do now? "I see him trying to play a bigger role. And he needs to play a bigger role. Being our lone senior, everything has indicated he's worked harder and he is better. He's a great kid, he has a great basketball IQ. It's something you can't teach, either you have it or don't at this stage of your life and your game. Being unselfish is a great quality, but I think in the make-up of our team right now I need him to become a more selfish player down low. We've got to establish another guy besides Jarvis if the ball goes in that paint, and not just be a set-up guy. I think Brian has the ability to do that."

DB: How did his spring trip to China help Elgin Bailey's development? "Well again, there's no substitute for experience. Now that his freshman year is behind him and we lost Charles, there's more of a role for him to play. And it was very obvious just watching him last year, the physical is not his adjustment; he's where he needs to be toughness-wise. Now we just have to put all the things in to help him become a better basketball player. Elgin is always one of my favorites because he possesses the right attitude, plays with effort and toughness. There's a bigger role for him now on this team and I believe he's capable of stepping up and keeping everybody honest."

DB: You mentioned Benock and Turner, what are the expectations there? "Riley showed spurts last year of really being able to shoot the basketball, of being a really heady player who can pass the ball. It was a huge adjustment for him last year, and he seemed afraid to shoot it. I stay on him all the time about it because he shoots it so well. Phil needs to get better in some areas. Obviously he helped the team last year and he has some minutes. On this team anybody that has played some, they should have a built-in advantage. He's got to continue to do the things he's capable of doing and play a role; you don't have to lead us in scoring and rebounding, but play within your abilities and strengths. And always, become a better defender."

DB: What stands out most to you about the new players? "Number one, as good as last year's freshman class was as people, this class is even better. And I think all of them bring different kinds of value to the team. Start with Romero Osby. He's as good a kid as you want to be around, and he has two things that will allow him to keep getting better as a player; he has a work ethic and the right attitude. Put that together with some skill and ability, you're going to get better and that's what Romero is going to do. He has a lot of things in his game to get better at but because of those things I just mentioned, he will."

"The guy I think has a chance to be as good a player as we've had in his position—and that's a huge statement—is Dee Bost. He possesses worlds and worlds of abilities to do a lot of different things as a point guard. He's not your typical guy you want to come down and pass and screen away. That's why I think Dee has a chance to be very special. He's a great kid and he possesses some physical toughness because he's played football, and he has a lot of ability offensively. Again I think he has a chance to be as good as any guard we've had since I've been here, and that's a huge mouthful because we've had some awfully good players at that position."

"Twany Beckham is as good a kid as you want to be around, always has a smile on his face. He's different because he's 6-5, 200, a big old strong guard. He's had a year of prep school so he's had a little bit of adjustment. And he's different as a point guard because he's one of the best passers out there, he'd look to pass it more than Dee because Dee has a lot of scoring ability. Twany is a guy who really looks to pass the basketball. The thing he and Dee have in common is they both have great defensive ability. One is 6-1, one is 6-5."

"Jacquiese Holcombe, because of his leg being hurt all fall I know less about him than I was hoping at this time. The things I do know is he's a great kid, lots of toughness, a guy who can come in and play whatever role you need him to play. The things that are going to be constant with him is he's going to defend and rebound, and that's a valuable role. That I know he is going to do because that's his mentality, he's demonstrated that throughout his career in those areas. His injury was a shin, they put a pin in it. I hope by the 15th of November that we can get his conditioning up where it needs to be."

DB: Most things about preseason practices don't change, but what will be emphasized more than usual this year? "Because there is so much newness to this team it's going to be new to me, too. And I'll have to make my adjustments as this thing goes on, some. I'm not going into it saying we're going to do this, this, and this. Except I know we're going to defend and rebound. And again some of the abilities may change some of the things we do defensively. I can say this guy will do that or this, but again I think we'll wait and find out about our team as we go on and make those adjustments that fit their strengths and weaknesses."

DB: Would you maybe then emphasize instruction over scrimmaging? "It's got to be a balance of them all. Because there are so many fundamentals the team doesn't know, you can't sacrifice that with scrimmaging; at the same time you've got to play the game. So you have to find that balance. If they're able to pick up what we're doing then maybe we scrimmage more, but there are certain things from a defensive standpoint you don't sacrifice the drilling. Because you lose the mental approach, the toughness approach. But, because we have two weeks of practicing before our first exhibition we've got to play the game. You can drill, drill, drill and get better, but you have to play the game up-and-down."

DB: How soon should Stewart be full-speed? "Barry is about a month ahead of Jacquiese. And if you're ever going to have injuries this was the time to have it so we can get them ready."

DB: Without Rhodes, Gordon, and Ben Hansbrough you don't have as many ‘knowns' as a year ago. "We may have more unknowns, but then we've had to tweak everything we've done a lot in the last two years. As I've said, I like the abilities of this team. The things I know going in that are unproven, we lost about 70% of our scoring and rebounding. So we've got to overcome it with our togetherness and our toughness, those are things you can develop on. You can't do anything about your experience, what it is is what it is." "One thing we've done, we've found a way to be consistent. For the most part we've been able to overcome losing three McDonald's All-Americans to the NBA draft and keep our program where it's been. That speaks for the players we've had around them. This will be a new challenge, but I like my team, I like my kids, and I think it's good to have a fresh start. We're coming off back-to-back Division championships but I like the freshness of this team. If attitude and work ethic has anything to do with wins and losses, I think we'll be in good shape."

DB: And that's a perfect statement to end this on…

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