Not at all. Not a season where a veteran lineup of proven performers is expected to challenge for championships, and not simply the conference tournament this time around. Of course there is plenty of season ahead before title-time arrives, but that made an opening-night wakeup call not the least bit more pleasant.
"I don't have an answer," exclaimed forward Kodi Augustus as he came through the interview room door before even being asked a question. Though when the recorders were turned on and queries came, the junior did have much more to say which will resonate around coaching office and locker room alike for a while. The mildest of it being "This is Rider! Preseason ranked #18 in the country, we're supposed to lose our first game home opener, wow! It's crazy."
If so then the visiting Broncos were crazy like foxes. Forward Mike Ringgold and guard Novar Gadson each scored 21 points while guard Ryan Thompson tossed in four timely three-pointers to balance the Rider offense while keeping the bigger Dog defense mostly off-balance. "We didn't play defense at all, as you can tell" said center Jarvis Varnado. "We gave up 88 points. They just killed us."
Except Rider did not regard this as an especially earth-shaking outcome. "The story line will cert be it was a huge upset, Mississippi State wasn't ready," Bronco Coach Tommy Dempsey said. "But Mississippi State played a good basketball team tonight, and they probably didn't benefit from knowing much about it. We didn't feel there was a big difference in our talent level and theirs."
There certainly was a sizable difference in how talent on both teams executed. Slapped with a fast home-court flurry by Bulldogs still buzzing from their pre-game celebrations, the Broncos recovered quickly and took things right at State. Bulldog Coach Rick Stansbury had alerted both team and fans that Rider was a squad to respect. "Well, everybody understands now. They were just better than us," he said, adding "We did some things that added to them being successful."
Such as a dozen turnovers. Or letting a smaller foe shoot 51%, though Rider did deserve credit for making some tough chances drop the right way. Particularly Ringgold, a 6-7 junior who repeatedly—and successfully—challenged record-setting shot blocker Varnado as few have before. More may try his approach now, though.
"Ringgold showed the ball a little, Jarvis raised up, and they'd go around him and throw it off the backboard," Stansbury said. "They started him at four and slid him down to five pretty quick and he's a hard matchup there." Ringgold made 10 of his 19 shots, most all within arm's reach of the goal, and didn't care if Varnado was nearer or not.
"He's about the toughest kid I've ever coached," Dempsey said. "You'll never see fear in his eyes and he was embracing the challenge." Ringgold also had six rebounds, while the 6-7 Gadson had 11 boards of his own.
Though he was frustrated on defense nobody could question Varnado's effort. Playing 36 minutes due to lack of post depth he began his senior season with a 22-point, 14-rebound, seven-block performance. Varnado didn't miss a single shot in eight tries, too. Point guard Dee Bost and wingman Ravern Johnson had 14 and 10 points with five treys between them, but were also 7-of-22 combined shooting as the State team made just 42% from their own floor.
In a way the game was a painful mirror-image for Stansbury as Rider used State's own winning approach last season; a small lineup of four guard types around a single player in the post. "They spread you out and play small, and all those guys can handle it and pass it and shot it. And they're so good off that dribble."
Against that shorter lineup Varnado put up the night's first two baskets, on a layup and tip-in, which drew a timeout from Rider just 43 ticks after tipoff. State's center and Johnson combined for seven more points as the Bulldogs jumped in front 11-2 before the Broncos could settle down.
"The place was ready to go and they came out looking like they were ready to go," said Dempsey, adding though, "I knew we weren't going to go away, that wasn't going to shake us. And maybe they took their foot off the gas a little bit."
Setting their attack up more for available shots Gadson and Ringgold worked inside the arc, and around Varnado, for shorter scores and Thompson popped their first three. When Ringgold went backdoor it was a 13-11 difference at 14:17. Bost briefly stemmed the momentum with his spot-up trey. Bulldog backups maintained some margin and midway of the half Varnado and Bost subbed back in.
Augustus joined them a minute later and hit a 24-footer that had the MSU margin back up to nine points. Varnado also asserted his defensive presence with consecutive swats and influenced miss. Still all was not well. "We made that run on them and they spurted right back," Stansbury said. "We had three straight turnovers in transition that allowed them to kind of get back in the game. That was huge, the game was flowing our way and let them get back in it."
A couple of longballs by Patrick Mansell helped keep Rider in striking range. His teammates warmed up as well as the Broncos knocked down some more outside attempts, and when Justin Robinson was good from millimeters behind the stripe the visitors had their first lead, 40-39. They were able to take a 44-42 advantage to their locker room, having made 12 of their last 19 shots in the period and six treys.
Rider stayed sharp for the second half as well as Ringgold fearlessly came right at, then by Varnado for acrobatic buckets. Robinson's spot-up three helped stretch the Bronco lead to 57-48 after five minutes with State's only points to then by Varnado working hard against double-coverage. Rider even dropped into a zone as Dogs were missing from outside.
At least until Stewart struck for three. An unkind roll denied Ringgold this time, and in motion Phil Turner fed Romero Osby for a slam and 57-53 score and fast Bronco timeout. It worked as Thompson hit a long shot in secondary break and Gadson was positioned for a putback and sudden 65-55 difference that got Stansbury to stop play at 11:03. Except with Varnado on the bench after picking up third foul, Rider's Thompson was unhindered in a driving banker.
Varnado returned at the media break, and Bronco Jermaine Jackson fouled-out stopping a layup which only cost Rider a point. They got that back and more as Thompson and Gadson worked open beyond State's zone defense and converted treys for a 75-63 lead at six minutes.
It was still a ten-point Bronco cushion after State's Johnson hit from the wing at 3:01 and Stansbury used timeout. But the coach couldn't solve his squad's defending ills, and most of the crowd was exiting as Rider took their late-game free shots. Long shots by Bost and Turner did make the final margin more respectable on paper but not a but less frustrating for the home team.
"Credit to Rider, they played hard and deserved it," said Stewart. "They were the better team tonight. We were in control early that first half. They made a run on us and we never bounced back from it."
For that matter the Dogs didn't have much bounce in their steps down the stretch. "I thought we got absolutely exhausted, too," said Stansbury, who had a limited roster to work with for the opener with two guards injured and another just coming off his own injury and unable to help much. With two other freshmen centers unavailable for NCAA reasons, in the paint only true freshman Wendell Lewis was available to spell Varnado, and the kid who had scrimmaged so well in preseason looked like a rookie in the first real game. "I'd like to use my bench more," Stansbury said. "It didn't help when Dee tweaked his ankle, we were just thin out there."
The Bulldogs have most of a week to keep healing some bodies; it's mindsets that might be more vulnerable at the moment after an unexpected opening setback. And comments such as Augustus made won't do much immediately to help attitudes. Though he started the game the junior got in just 15 minutes, scoring nine points on 4-of-9 shooting with a make of his lone trey try.
"I'm in for five minutes and then I'm out, I mean I can't even get in rhythm," said Augustus, overlooking his two first half fouls and two more in the second. "He (the coach) is talking about I got one rebound, and I played for five minutes in the first half."
Augustus also expressed frustration that to his eye Varnado wasn't allowed to continue guarding Ringgold, though admitting the Bronco was "an unorthodox player, he made some reverses on us. But I mean, let Jarvis keep (deleted) guarding him." The main theme remained that after making solid contributions in last year's end-of-season run, and attempting to make himself the inside/outside player State asks, Augustus was unhappy about opening-night minutes.
"Yeah, I'm (deleted). But like I said, I can't do nothing about it. I played all those minutes in the exhibition games and then you come and play me 15 minutes, wow!" Asked if he was angry more over the loss or playing time, Augustus said it was both. "I mean, I want to be out there helping. I didn't even play, I couldn't even get into a groove. I mean, I get subbed, every time I look over my shoulder I'm coming out of the game. It's crazy."
Just how crazy the coach would feel about such unsolicited critiques, Augustus did not seem concerned. "It's true, I've got nothing to hide. I'm mad, yeah, we lost." Though the player will almost certainly lose too, especially after relating that "I talked to my Dad, he said we got out-coached. I don't know!"
Stansbury will respond at some point in the week to come as Mississippi State has until next Thursday to prepare for a home game with Southeastern Louisiana (7:00).