MSU's 'Z' ready for 'big test' in Big Apple

Taking along more than just his sneakers, deft passing and sizzling shooting touch, Mississippi State All-SEC point guard Derrick Zimmerman will pack his camcorder for the trip to the Big Apple.<P> The Bulldogs' senior playmaker plans to visit the site left barren by the destruction of the World Trade Center by the terrorists attacks in New York City more than a year ago.

While Zimmerman wants to visits the sites in New York, MSU's lightning-quick backcourt traffic director is focused on the top 25 hoops match, featuring the Maroon & White-clad Dogs of the Southeastern Conference and the Xavier Musketeers of the Atlantic 10, but he can't help but recall 9/11.

"It's not the same after the attacks, without the World Trade Center," acknowledged Zimmerman. "But it's a place I'd like to see, maybe take the camcorder."

Ranked No. 22 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches' poll, Mississippi State (5-1) will take on No. 11 Xavier (5-1) Saturday, Dec. 14 at world renown Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York City. The intersectional bout tips-off at 11 a.m. Central Time and will be televised by FOX Sports.

It marks the Bulldogs first trip back to New York since their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Final Four during the 1995-96 campaign at the nearby Meadowlands at East Rutherford's (NJ) Continental Airlines Arena.

"We'll be ready to play," promised Zimmerman, the Dogs' senior co-captain who was a freshman at Monroe, LA (Woosman) when Mississippi State last visited New York City. The Dogs received a close-up look at Times Square and many other NYC landmarks thanks to the savvy of veteran MSU team bus driver Everett Kennard.

"We're excited about going to New York," said Zimmerman.

A "defense first" philosophy has helped make the 6-3, 195-pound Zimmerman a more complete player. He led MSU with 29 blocks and 27 dunks a year ago, becoming the first Bulldog player to pace the team in assists, blocks and rebounding for the season, a testament to his eye-popping leaping ability.

Zimmerman proved long ago how talented and valuable he is to Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury's team. Not only did he lead the Dogs in assists last year, but paced the entire SEC, averaging an even 6.0 a game, good for a tie for 20th in the country.

"Our motto is defense will take care of the offense if we play hard," said Zimmerman.

"We have to work to try and improve our defense and rebounding each game," noted Zimmerman, hitting at a .667 percent clip from the floor, that places him third in the league although in a limited number of attempts.

During a three-game stretch earlier this month, Zimmerman hit 13-of-15 shots from the field, including a near-perfect game in an 81-65 win over McNeese. He made 5-of-5 from the floor while grabbing four rebounds, dishing out a game-high eight assists and coming up with four steals.

"I'll take that (5-of-5), eight assists and four steal every night," said Stansbury, who added, the Dogs' talented trio of "Zimmerman, Timmy Bowers and Ontario Harper help set the tone around the perimeter."

Back to the tough upcoming match with Xavier, Zimmerman said it was going to be a real challenge going on the road for the first time this season.

"They're (Xavier) very good and they have an all-American player similar to Mario (Austin). I believe he's Dave West (two-time Atlantic 10 Player of the Year). They have a good overall team.

"This game will be a big test for us. We don't get much respect in the polls, but that's okay. You can't pay too much attention to the polls anyway," noted Zimmerman.

Often referred to simply as "Z" by his teammates and legion of fans, and he has plenty followers - hundreds, perhaps thousands.

Among "Rick's Rowdies" alone, "Z" may rival Louisiana neighbor Britney Spears with "string music" of a different origin, lob passes, uncanny blocks and NBA-style slam dunks.

Incidentally, Zimmerman and Spears recently celebrated their 21st birthdays. For "Z" it was also his 100th career game, Monday, Dec. 2, against instate rival Jackson State. After back-to-back 100-point games, the Bulldogs netted a 71-56 win over the Tigers in their third game in five days.

Zimmerman, off to a super start, had a strong outing despite sightings of fatigue in the MSU camp. He had seven points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals.

"It was a great birthday gift," explained Zimmerman, who helped spark the Dogs' drive to the second round of the NCAA Midwest Regional last spring at Dallas, TX.

"Our purpose is to come back with a victory (from New York)," said Zimmerman, who pointed out the Dogs have several tough upcoming games, including bouts with Georgia Southern in Jackson (Dec. 18) and with Oklahoma, a Final Four team a year ago.

Closing out their season-opening six-game homestand with a solid 78-38 win over highly-regarded Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State will take a five-game win streak to New York City along with "Super Mario" Austin, who has been cleared by the NCAA to rejoin the Dogs.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page.

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