Zimmerman quickly become a favorite of Bulldog fans everywhere with his aggressiveness, hustle, daring drives to the glass and his defensive intensity. Not only has he gained the respect of his coaches and teammates alike, but the fans adore the lightning-quick, 6-2, 185, backcourt wizard.
Most SEC coaches are quick to praise the incredibly gifted and academic oriented student athlete as well.
Auburn's Cliff Ellis, a veteran of numerous SEC battles, said Zimmerman stepped up against the Tigers in the deciding division duel.
"I thought when it came to making shots, Zimmerman was the key player to give Mississippi State the momentum," he said.
Mississippi State is ticketed for its third straight postseason appearance with a big assist from Zimmerman. Once the Monroe, La., honorable mention McDonald's All-American became established, he was like a natural born floor leader. Along with "Zim" and all-stars Mario Austin and Timmy Bowers, joined by senior standout transfer Michal Ignerski from Poland and sophomore Ontario Harper, the Dogs have become a force, sharing in the national limelight the past few years.
Stansbury and his staff had a tough task to find replacements in the preseason for seniors Marckell Patterson and Michael Gholar, who incidentally was at courtside to cheer the Dogs on against Auburn. To their credit the staff has done a nice job bringing along an "energized" Winsome Frazier and defensive "giant" in Branden Vincent while getting crucial help from 7-0 Marcus Campbell and reserve center Lincoln Smith.
"I think we've helped turn things around, getting everything back to the level of 1995-96 (Final Four) years," said Zimmerman following the Bulldogs' annihilation of Auburn, 67-45, in Saturday's SEC West showdown.
No. 23 Mississippi State (19-8, 8-7 Southeastern Conference) with the sweet, sweet win nabbed the West No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament, March 13-16, at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. MSU gets a bye and will not play until noon Friday.
All the Dogs took part in the "net cutting" beginning with Austin, Bowers, Harper, Ignerski, Campbell, Smith, and Vincent ... before being wrapped up by Zimmerman.
"Oh, yes I'm going to keep the net," said Zimmerman when asked what he was going to do with the final strands? "That net is going back with my parents just like the basketball from the SEC Tournament last year."
An all-time fan favorite of the Maroon & White, Zimmerman has played a major role in the turnaround of the fortunes in Starkville the past three seasons, highlighted by a banner campaign in 2001-02 which saw the Dogs win a school record 27 games while claiming the SEC Tournament championship in Atlanta, Ga., and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Midwest Regional at Dallas, Tex.
From a rare losing record in his freshman campaign (14-16), "Z" became instrumental in helping recharge the program.
A subpar transition campaign had its ups and down, but the Dogs quickly righted the ship following Zimmerman's rookie season which saw the gifted young athlete having a tough time adjusting to the rigors of the rugged SEC.
Rated one of the top players in the nation coming out of Monroe Wossman where he was coached by his father Dale Zimmerman, the future Bulldog all-star averaged a "triple-double" (30.2 ppg, 11.8 rpg, & 11.2 apg) in the prep ranks. However, he found his role in college a somewhat challenging compromise. The Dogs posted an impressive 18-13 overall record "Z's" sophomore campaign which included an extended stay in the NIT.
During the early learning process, Zimmerman took a second look at the situation, but deep down inside his heart he said he knew he was "sticking in out" which was the same advice he had received from his father. Zimmerman had an outstanding game against highly-regarded Pittsburgh in the NIT quarterfinals, a 66-61 MSU triumph, and thus his brilliant career was revitalized.
A basketball vet, Zimmerman started early, as soon as age three. It intensified with age. As a prepster playing for his dad, "Z" was known to get the keys to the gym and would often stay 'till midnight practicing tirelessly.
Today, Zimmerman couldn't be happier with the decision to stick with the Bulldogs, the reigning SEC tourney champs and the newly-crowned Western Division champions. From doubt and uncertainty emerged a rewarding dream come true, job well done, mission accomplished attitude, although there's still hopefully, lots of hoops remaining for the SEC Tournament-bound Battlin' Bulldogs.
Quizzed about perhaps a "perfect ending to glossy career" in the regular season finale, Zimmerman quipped:
"What better way would you want it? I mean ... to win the SEC Western Division championship your senior year, being the senior captain on a team, to come back from a 14-16 record my freshman year to become Western Division champs. I think that's big," said Zimmerman, who tossed in a game-high 15 points just missing a double-double with eight assists while blocking two shots and coming up with two steals.
Zimmerman opened the scoring against Auburn with a 3-pointer, one of three baskets from behind the arc, drove to the rim for a 7-2 MSU lead, dished to Ignerski for a 9-2 margin and added a putback for a double-digit, 14-4, margin. "Z's" stats add up in a hurry, a trademark of his since he first picked up a basketball.
In fact, in addition to cutting the final chords of the net before draping it around his muscular shoulders, the exciting and oh, so richly talented playmaker, received not one, but two curtain calls in the final minutes of the big win over Auburn.
The packed house at The Hump, rocking from the rafters from the likes of "Rick's Rowdies" to the wildly-cheering fans with visions of title banners, loved every minute with "Z" which was easy to detect. Signs everywhere depicted their sentiments. One prominently displayed proclaimed "Zim" and "Iggie" the Best!
"It meant a lot to me," explained Zimmerman, in reference to twice being taken out in the final minutes and put back on the floor for a second encore to the delight of the huge crowd.
"I've been here four years and the fans have been great. I feel they appreciate everything I've done for Mississippi State and helping to get back to where they were. I appreciate coach (Stansbury) doing that for me and I just want to thank the fans for showing their appreciation," said Zimmerman, a player's player and a coach's dream.
Stansbury said his stellar point guard and senior captain is a special player.
"Derrick's been here for four years and was in my first recruiting class as head coach," he added.
"Anyone who's watched him (Zimmerman) play over four years knows there's not many more exciting guys, that can run, jump and dunk with the quickness he can. I just wanted to make sure the fans had one more chance to send him off because he deserves it," said Stansbury, whose three-year-old son Isaac was wearing jersey No. 22 ("Z's" No. as everybody knows).
Zimmerman's parents, Dale and Addie, have cheered their son on from the beginning and they're still proudly cheering.
It was an emotional "Senior Day" in Starkville with tears enough to moisten the SEC West banner, but still with enough crispness to be cherished for a lifetime.
Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page.