Mississippi State Bulldogs
22-10; 9-7 SEC (third Western Division); Unranked
Mississippi State opens the postseason playing for an opportunity to redeem a frustrating regular season. Yet what could be disappointing about 22 victories, another winning conference record, and scoring program history with a fourth-consecutive NCAA Tournament berth?
Because, more was expected from this Bulldog bunch. A lineup of veterans from the 2004 Southeastern Conference championship squad, featuring a national Player of the Year candidate and four other seniors, and supplemented by two high-profile recruits, appeared to have everything necessary to contend for bigger prizes in 2005. These Dogs still have that shot, but the four months between preseason projections and postseason position have not been as productive—or enjoyable—as anticipated.
In fact, the initial signs of season-long troubles showed before tip-off as All-American forward Lawrence Roberts broke his nose in practice, and was ruled ineligible for two games for a pro tryout trip payment. When Roberts did take the court he had to wear a protective mask for three more weeks. He returned in time for the semifinals of the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic after teammates won a pair of opening games, but then-#5 Syracuse handed State a 71-58 defeat. The Bulldogs did take St. Mary's in the consolation.
Other potential problems were unmasked in early-season tourney play, with erratic perimeter offense and shaky foul shooting. Still Roberts' return and a soft schedule meant when Mississippi State met Arizona in the Wooden Classic both were ranked. The #20 Wildcats held off #15 MSU's late rally, as with the score 65-64 Roberts could not get to a low bounce-pass from point guard Gary Ervin and Arizona clinched a four-point win on free throws.
The Bulldogs did bounce back and put together their best stretch of the schedule with eight-straight wins including victories over Xavier, Virginia Tech, and a successful SEC-opening rout of Auburn. They took care of rival Ole Miss for a 16th consecutive road-game victory, dating back to February 2004, and at 14-2 would climb to 11th in the polls. But the win came at a price as senior guard Winsome Frazier broke a bone in his left foot. He would miss the next eight games; his team would miss their second-leading scorer, best outside shooter, and top backcourt defender.
And SEC foes took advantage, usually in the form of wide zone defenses that doubled and tripled up on Roberts as needed. Coach Rick Stansbury tried a couple of lineups, ultimately settling for using senior Ontario Harper at small forward and switching swingman Shane Power to off-guard. It was a compromise solution that couldn't replace Frazier's outside scoring and, more annoyingly, made MSU's defense more vulnerable to three-balls. State split the ensuing eight games, winning at home and losing away in a predictable cycle. Even Frazier's return on a repaired foot was spoiled by losses to LSU and Kentucky, with Roberts bruising a thigh in the latter defeat. The Bulldogs were just 6-6 SEC, 18-8 overall and not entirely certain of a NCAA bid.
The schedule, and improving health, saved the season as State beat SEC cellar-dwellers Georgia and Ole Miss, then scored a must-win at Arkansas that effectively locked up a postseason berth… not to mention the fourth consecutive 20-win campaign, another program record. All a schedule-ending loss to Alabama and split at the SEC Tournament, with a win over Georgia and loss to Florida, did was settle State's NCAA seeding.
Other, that is, than show that the Bulldogs are still not in shape to play on consecutive days after, naturally, more injuries. Power sprained an ankle the day before the SEC Tournament. Senior center Marcus Campbell, a 28-game starter, has not been a factor since pulling a calf muscle prior to the regular-season finale. Frazier still isn't the same defender on the wings, and Roberts has been worn down by added demands. That he has still averaged a season double-double says much for his motivation to prove coming back for a senior season was the right decision.
Fortunately NCAA play is separated by a day, and after a week off, Mississippi State ought to be in decent physical condition for Friday's opener. Their emotional shape? That's another issue. It's been a long, tough, frustrating, and not nearly as rewarding season as this team planned on. But if tournament time really is a new season, perhaps the Bulldogs can finally find a way to have the fun forecast for them in 2004-05. After all, better late than never. And in his seventh year Stansbury is openly glad that MSU fans, not so long ago content with occasional competitiveness, are disappointed their team is ‘only' a NCAA ninth-seed and 22-game winner. It's proof that expectations now come standard with the MSU uniform.
Tentative Starting Lineup
PG Gary Ervin, SO, 5-11, 170. 7.6 points, 4.8 assists. Promoted to the open point guard job this season and started 31 of 32 games. Ranks second in SEC assists average, but also has 97 turnovers and playing time has accordingly dropped in the last four weeks. Has typically not been on the court in the closing minutes lately, though he is by far the top ballhandler on this roster. Infrequent outside shooter, prefers to attack the lane from the key and go for layups in traffic or open up room for Roberts. Tends to be static out top against zones. Had a minor hip bruise at the SEC Tournament. At his best in end-to-end offense, and a better man-defender than realized even with height mismatches.
SG Winsome Frazier, SR, 6-4, 180. 12.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 51 3ptrs. Back in the starting lineup after missing eight games (Jan. 12 to Feb. 12) with broken bone in left foot. Returned to starting job March 5. Speed and jumping are fine but some lateral quickness is still missing. The team's best outside scorer and only true ‘jump' shooter, ranking 6th in MSU career treys. Equally comfortable shooting from both wings and corners. Also ranks 6th in career steals, thought not able to ‘swoop' as he used to. Under-appreciated rebounder at each end, and moves well without the ball. A good passer able to find teammates in traffic. Began to drive-and-shoot more after his return to lineup. Also the only married Bulldog.
G/F Shane Power, SR, 6-5, 210. 11.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 55 3ptrs. Only Bulldog to have started every game this season, as the small forward for the first 19 games and at off-guard the next ten. Averaged 17 points from Feb. 1-26, pickup up Frazier's shooting slack, but readjusting back to the wing. A classic ‘gamer' in all aspects. Needs room to set-shoot from the arc but able to drive and create pullup jumpers against almost any defensive scheme. Clutch free throw shooter. Clever passer with great floor awareness. Able to muscle in for rebounds and loose balls, and trigger the transition game. Must be watched on secondary break, spotting up for the three. Doesn't mind teasing about use of hair gel.
F/C Lawrence Roberts, SR, 6-9, 240. 16.7 points, 10.9 rebounds. The 2004 SEC Player of the Year and Wooden All-American. Led State to 2004 SEC title after transfer from Baylor. Came back for senior year to play forward but is again spending more time in low post where he scores best in back-to-basket sets. Shooting has fallen off due to double-teams but still gets 17 points, much of it by drawing fouls. Leads the SEC in free throw attempts, though just 65% overall at the line. Relentless rebounder at each end and fills more space than most pivots. Solid man-defender, moves well in zones. Not a great leaper (22 blocks) and short-armed shot can be swatted, but otherwise uses his size and strength to best advantage. Will rotate outside and take open treys from top of key, and can pass better than the usual big man. Great first step and a quick fallaway jumper in lane. NCAA active leader in career double-doubles and posted first-ever MSU triple-double (18/11/12 assists).
F Ontario Harper, SR, 6-5, 215. 8.5 points, 4.9 rebounds. Ranking veteran of team at 25 years-old. Missed all last season with knee injury, and still not as agile as in 2000-03 when he played small forward. Now plays more in frontcourt, strong enough to defend much bigger forwards and still check wingmen on drives. Comfortable defending anywhere on court and a reliable rebounder. Scores best on the baseline move and quick cuts to the lane. Can take the medium-range jumpers, but from the perimeter is either going to be hot or cold. Ironically, his double-digit scoring nights more often come in MSU defeats. Still a steadying influence on whatever lineup is on the court.
G Jamall Edmondson, JR, 5-9, 185. 5.1 points, 31 3ptrs. Signed out of JC as backup off-guard, now emerged as alternate point guard and getting over 15 minutes with positive assist/turnover rate. Told to be safe on moving the ball around, rarely drives the lane. Decent defender, can be overpowered. Needs a step to get off jumper, but can stick the open three and now taking—and making—some long shots off the move. If Ervin struggles, he will play a lot.
C Marcus Campbell, SR, 7-0, 270. 6.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 28 blocks. Status uncertain with calf injury, but could be back in starting lineup by Friday. Has had big games on boards in SEC play and helps free Roberts to play facing basket. Offensive entirely unpredictable, tends to rush easy shots and dribble once too often in traffic. But when he scores, State usually wins. His size changes how rest of team defends.
G Dietric Slater, SO, 6-3, 195. 3.2 points, 2.1 rebounds. Best athlete on the roster, and a ferocious man-on-man defender. OK awareness in zone schemes. A lefthander, and not a good shooter but can occasionally pop the long jumper. Reckless in transition offense, very likely to loose the ball, yet can finish with anyone if he just keeps under control. Minutes fell off second half of February.
F Charles Rhodes, FR, 6-8, 235. 2.9 points, 1.9 rebounds. All-everything recruit struggling to adjust to on- and off-court college responsibilities. Awesome potential as low-post scorer and rebounder, only needing to get total act together to become a force at this level.
Others: C Wesley Morgan, JR, 7-2, 245, will fill Campbell's backup role if senior can't play. And C Walter Sharpe, FR, 6-9, 235, has great pivot skills and gotten minutes when not confined to bench for discipline reasons.
Bulldog Strengths: The numbers don't lie: this is a program built on defense and rebounding, and this team continues those trends. Roberts is a beast down low, and even if he'd rather be playing outside the painted wood, the offense works best with the big Dog nearer the basket. He draws fouls in bunches and converts enough free throws to make challenging double-teams productive. And don't leave him alone out top, the guy really can shoot for three. A focus on Roberts often allows Ervin the crease needed for a slash at the rim, and the point guard can get the looping layup off over much bigger men. Power gradually works his way open enough to get off long jumpers, and will pitch the ball back immediately if not free. Don't be surprised to watch him wriggle through a crowd to hit from 10 on in, too. Frazier shoots from anywhere and when on will scorch off a series of treys. One positive to all the injuries is that a bunch of Bulldogs have gotten honest experience, even starts, in real games all year, and Stansbury will substitute for anyone at any time.
Bulldog Weaknesses: Too often Roberts feels the need to go score and forces something no matter how many bodies are between ball and bucket. He can play with fouls but not nearly as well. A season-long pounding is showing, too, and lately teams are hitting him (literally) high with a center and low with a guard, limiting his rebound chances and thus slowing State's fastbreak. Ervin has only one speed and against zones tends to hold the ball a tick too long before reversal, meaning no shooter is open. This is one of the SEC's worst groups in turnover terms. Frazier is the only backcourt Dog able to take a guarded shot, Power and Harper need a step. Perimeter defense can react slowly and teams attempt a disproportionate number of treys against State. Having a lot of backups is good, but not all the units function well together and many subs just can't score a tough basket. And unlike last year's league champs, there just has not been much good chemistry all this season. Blame injuries and lineup changes, or blame personalities, or more likely both, but there are stretches this squad doesn't play as a, well, team.
Winning Ways: There's no secret here. If the Bulldogs defend and rebound at anything like their usual effort, it all comes down to how quickly and effectively the transition offense runs. Keeping Roberts out of foul trouble won't hurt, either.
Danger Signs: Again, nothing tricky. Assuming the defense/rebounding as constants, State just can't let Stanford set up defensively. Because then it comes down to making jumpshots, or free throws, or both. And that's not a gameplan these Bulldogs have been comfortable with all season.
By The Numbers:
|Field Goal %||44.5%||41.1%|
|3-pt FG %||33.2%||31.8%|
Other MSU Post-Season Notes: This is the eighth time Mississippi State has played in the NCAA, the fourth under Rick Stansbury since he was promoted to head coach in 1999... The Dogs have had some bad draws these three years though, including two recent ‘Cinderella' clubs. In 2002 the Bulldogs went 1-1 in regional play, losing to Texas in Dallas. In '03 they were upset in the first round by Butler; and last March they fell in the second round to Xavier... Stansbury has a seven-season record of 148-74 and already ranks third in school wins as well as SEC wins (62). He has coached five of the 12 MSU teams that have won 20 or more games... Stansbury was an assistant from 1990-98 to Coach Richard Williams, on three teams that went to NCAA play (1991, '95, '96). The 1995 team reached the ‘Sweet 16' before losing to eventual national champs UCLA. The 1996 team made MSU's only Final Four appearance, losing to Syracuse... There are six seniors on this roster, five of them scholarship upperclassmen. All five have started this year... Seniors Lawrence Roberts and Shane Power both transferred after two years in the Big XII, Roberts at Baylor and Power at Iowa State... Seniors Winsome Frazier and Marcus Campbell are officially the ‘winningest' Bulldogs ever having played on four teams with 94 total victories. Ontario Harper, who missed last season, has 87 career wins... Power, an Indiana native, wanted to attend either Stanford or Duke out of high school but was not offered by either... Roberts came to MSU after the tragic events of summer 2003 at Baylor, which also sent guard John Lucas to Oklahoma State. Both were allowed to play without sitting a season by NCAA dispensation... Point guard Gary Ervin hails from the Bronx (N.Y.)... Power, a first-generation American, has been selected for the Irish National team that will play in Olympics qualifying this summer.
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