Diamond Dogs join MSU hoop teams in rankings

One of only two schools in the Southeastern Conference with both its men's and women's basketball teams ranked, the Mississippi State Diamond Dogs follow in the national spotlight.<P> Collegiate Baseball's 2003 Preseason Poll was released Monday and the Mississippi State Bulldogs are ranked 11th. It's the Diamond Dogs highest preseason ranking since the 1998 campaign when MSU advanced to the College World Series.

Mississippi State's Lady Bulldogs (8-1) maintained their No. 14 ranking in the Associated Press top 25 women's poll, while the Bulldogs (7-1) hung onto their No. 16 standing in the AP top 25 men's poll. The well-traveled Lady Bulldogs, who haven't played at The Hump in over a month, have acquired the sentimental tag "Road Warriors" over the past few weeks, playing six of their last seven games away, including five straight.

Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning has reminded the Lady Dogs they'll have to keep their "Road Warriors" sign up at least one more week with an upcoming trip on the itinerary, Dec. 28-29, to Missoula, MT, to compete in the Lady Griz Holiday Classic.

Ironically, undefeated on the road while hitting the freeway a few times themselves, the Bulldogs of fifth-year head coach Rick Stansbury turned back No. 11 Xavier, 71-61, Dec. 14 in New York City to coincide with the return of all-American candidate "Super Mario" Austin.

A 6-9 junior, Austin just missed a "double-double" pouring in 28 points against the stunned Musketeers while pulling down nine rebounds at Madison Square Garden joined by a national FOX Sports audience.

From the "Big Apple" to the "Big House" to "Big Easy," in a mere two weeks, Mississippi State takes on the top 5-ranked Oklahoma Sooners, a Final Four team, Saturday, Dec. 28 in the Nokia Sugar Bowl Basketball Classic in New Orleans, LA, with a Noon tip-off at the New Orleans Arena.

"It's a challenging schedule," Stansbury said earlier when reminded of more than one highly-ranked opponent on the Dogs' 2002-03 schedule.

"Oklahoma, as everyone knows, has an excellent basketball team," noted Stansbury, who gave the Dogs a couple of days off for Christmas following their, 78-54, win over "Lefty" Driesell's Georgia State edition at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson a week ago Wednesday in the Capital City.

Enjoying their national ranking, the Dogs and Lady Dogs, matched only by LSU with both men (24th) and women (2nd) ranked, have had to overcome some major roadblocks to stay on track. To their credit the Maroon & White editions have had various players "step up" in a pinch.

Austin's debut on Broadway was spectacular as was the Dogs for the entire country to see. After setting out six games before the NCAA gave the reigning SEC Tournament MVP the "green light," the tough-to-defend power forward, netted "SEC Player of the Week" honors.

Austin was back at it four days later again drawing rave reviews from Georgia State's veteran coach, who incidentally, applauded the entire MSU team following its triumph before a packed house of nearly 7,000 at the Mississippi Coliseum.

"They're a good ball club, a lot better than us," Driesell said of the Bulldogs, who hadn't played in Jackson since Stansbury's debut as Mississippi State head coach, a 105-53 triumph over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Nov. 17, 1998.

"If we played them 10 times they would beat us," added Driesell, the onetime Maryland Terrapins coach who is 4th in all-time wins with 785.

Austin posted his first "double-double" of the season in the Dogs last outing (his second game) with 24 points and 10 rebounds against Georgia State. He was 10-of-16 from the floor, four baskets coming on "picture perfect" passes from All-SEC point guard Derrick Zimmerman, who had 10 assists, one off his career-high of 11.

"Derrick (Zimmerman) is the anchor in the backcourt," said Stansbury.

Junior guard Timmy Bowers, who ranks among the SEC's top 10 leaders in five statistical categories, joined Austin in double figures with 11 points, all coming in the first half, including a monster slam. Ontario Harper, who had been under the weather some, just missed double figures with eight points but had 11 rebounds.

Mississippi State's Lady Dogs, tied for their highest ranking ever by USA Today/ESPN, made their debut at the United Center against the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois, Dec. 14, with three-time all-American LaToya Thomas remaining back home due to a family tragedy.

Sophomore guard Tan White, last year's "SEC Newcomer of the Year" helped take up the slack with a game-high 19 points along with freshman Doceide Warren, making her debut, with 15 points. Freshman Mamie McKinney started in the place of Thomas, who had a death in her family, and responded with 10 points.

Self-described as the "Road Warriors" by their coaches and players alike, the Lady Bulldogs have just returned from Orlando, Fla., where they "wrapped-up" the University of Central Florida Holiday Classic championship.

The Lady Bulldogs will be joined by Utah, Texas-Pan American and host Montana in the Lady Griz Classic with their first round match Saturday against Utah. MSU returns home Thursday, Jan. 2 to play Xavier at Humphrey Coliseum, marking their first appearance in Starkville since before Thanksgiving (Nov. 22) against nationally-ranked Cincinnati, an exciting 76-70 victory over the Bearcats.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi State Diamond Dogs of Ron Polk, Dean of the SEC baseball coaches, open the 2003 campaign Feb. 21-23, hosting first-time opponent Connecticut and Birmingham-Southern in the third annual NBC Classic at magnificent Dudy Noble Field.

To all, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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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