#18 Dogs Still Seeking Identity For Opener

Depending on which forecaster is consulted, these Bulldogs are anything from a top-ten squad, to a lower top-twenty group, to not even ranked in a few preseason pollings. So safe to say there's a mix of opinions on what Mississippi State is and will be this winter. Which does not bother Rick Stansbury at all. "We don't have our identity figured out ourselves," he said. "And our identity changes."

The schedule, though, doesn't. And whoever Bulldog basketball is right now and whatever it can become over the course of the campaign, they still must report to court for a tipoff Friday evening as Mississippi State hosts Rider in the season opener. Game time is 8:00 in Humphrey Coliseum with no telecast; the broadcast will be carried on the MSU network as well as XM channel 199.

With two days left for pre-tip prep Stansbury is still figuring out the totality of what he has to work with going into the year. Naturally he expect this, his 12th Bulldog team, to develop and adapt as the winter progresses. And it isn't as if State is starting a season from scratch; not with all five regular starters and two more alternate openers back from a team that won 23 games as well as the Southeastern Conference Tournament title.

Still, there's the annual unknowns of taking another team into a new season. Besides, in this particular season's case the Bulldogs begin the year with some national spotlights on their faces…and a target on their backs. The two major pre-season polls have State ranked 18th (Associated Press) and 19th (USA Today/ESPN). Then there is the opening-night matchup Stansbury scheduled, against a Rider team never seen by a Bulldog squad before but of which Stansbury is well-aware.

"Rider is very good," he said today. "People don't understand how good Rider is, two years in a row they've been in post-season play, they've got a (conference) Player of the Year back. It's one of the toughest home openers we've had in a long time." That's a fair point. In the eleven previous seasons Stansbury teams are 9-2 in lidlifters with a six-year winning streak, but they have rarely faced an opening foe with a RPI in the low 100s also.

Stansbury expects the Broncos to come with a four-out, one-in lineup based on aggressive guards who shoot, dribble, and drive. If that sounds a lot like the four-guard scheme Mississippi State rode for most of last winter, yes, Stansbury said there are some similarities. But there are differences, too, as Rider can put the ball in the hands of a 6-6, 220-pound senior like Ryan Thompson, or swing it to 6-7, 230-pound guard Novar Gadson. State might not see a more physical backcourt all season.

And that weighs heavily, so to speak, on Stansbury's mind at the moment because physical concerns may limit the Bulldogs available for guard and guard-ing duty Friday. Junior Riley Benock is still not 100% health after summer foot surgery, and while he played in the second exhibition game "he seems to have taken a half-step back" Stansbury said. Freshman guard Shaun Smith came to college with a hip issue and after another examination Monday is doubtful for the opener. And soph Twany Beckham is still sidelined for a while with a knee problem.

Fortunately State's veteran starting guards are in fine shape, though senior Barry Stewart did bang an elbow in a practice fall that affected his shooting touch in the second exhibition. He and point guard Dee Bost might have to play a few more minutes than usual in an opening game, and neither will have easy tasks. Since Stewart is, as Stansbury said "our best perimeter defender" he will have to either square up with one of those big Bronco guards or chase 6-2, 190-pounder Justin Robinson around the court. But the head coach is asking Bost to upgrade his own defensive efforts this sophomore season. Even if it means matching up on a 6-6 or 6-7.

"We're not going to hide Dee defensively," Stansbury said. "He's become a good enough defender. But Barry is a guy you trust defensively." Or, for that matter, so is Phil Turner. It's saying something indeed that on a team full of multi-position personnel Turner is probably the most versatile Dog of all. And the junior has practiced like a whole new Dog, Stansbury added.

"Is he a four, a three, a two, I don't know. But just having him on the floor changes your energy and changes your toughness. And no question his understanding and experience is miles beyond where it was last year. All the way around, he's finally ‘got it'." Whatever ‘it' is Turner really must have done ‘it' too. "I don't remember since first day of practice calling his name," said the coach. "And that's a good change!"

Stansbury reports encouraging changes in forward Kodi Augustus' practice performance this fall. This has allowed the junior to regain the starting job at big forward he held last November only to move to the bench the rest of the season. Augustus' play in late February and March certainly turned him in the right direction but it has been his pre-season work that convinced the coach.

"He's come a long way. He's made progress in every area. Is he perfect yet, he's not. But I ask give a good honest effort in everything you do. We do think Kodi is trying now to do what we want him to do. And his game is showing it."

Mississippi State's tentative lineup for tipoff has Bost on the point with Stewart and junior three-point ace Ravern Johnson also in the backcourt; and Augustus complementing all-star center Jarvis Varnado. The senior postman rolled an ankle early in camp but is full-speed going into his last college season, where he will soon become the SEC's all-time leader in blocked shots and try to rewrite the NCAA record as well. Varnado was brutally efficient on offense in exhibition play, shooting 10-of-13 and averaging ten rebounds.

But if the backcourt is thin from health reasons, the pivot is almost bare of depth since junior Elgin Bailey is likely out for the year as that March-injured ankle heals. Freshman center John Riek must serve a nine-game NCAA suspension for amateurism reasons; and classmate Renardo Sidney remains uncleared by the NCAA for similar reasons. Stansbury is as tired of talking about Sidney's unknown status for the season as reporters are of asking. "But we have to prepare without him. If we get him someday we'll all be glad, but until then we prepare without him."

So the third freshman post, Wendell Lewis, will handle all backup center work as of now. The rookie has looked good in exhibition and scrimmage play at each end of the court, though naturally he has given a little more effort on offense. "We need him to defend and rebound and not do crazy things but to spell Jarvis," Stansbury said. "And if we can get him to add-to when he's in there it would be special. If it's even, we can live with that. He's probably thrown into a role he's probably not ready for."

In that case State will look to Augustus to assert himself further around the defensive basket, along with soph Romero Osby who can play an inside/outside game that is sure to challenge opponents. "We'll continue to work on that rotation," Stansbury said. "We know who we've got, the biggest thing is figuring out who is healthy enough to go."

That's the physical health. The emotional strength? That's where oldest Dogs like Varnado and Stewart will step to the fore for their senior season together. Stansbury is entirely confident this tandem is up to the veteran task.

"They have a lot more ownership of the team. They've been part of three championships and guys respect what they talk about and what they do."

After opening the season, the Bulldogs will wait until November 19 to play again with a Thursday night meeting with Southeastern Louisiana (7:00).

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