Q&A Around the SEC: Mississippi State BulldogsPosted by Brian Joyce on December 14th, 2012
Christian D’Andrea is a columnist for the Vanderbilt site Anchor of Gold and a weekly columnist for the SEC microsite.
It’s been a rough season in Starksville. Of course, losing your team’s top four players and the head coach who ran the team for more than a decade will lower expectations a bit. That’s what Mississippi State is going through right now. Former coach Rick Stansbury was dismissed this spring after failing to reach the NCAA Tournament in his last three years. That might have been excusable if Stansbury hadn’t been in charge of one of the NCAA’s most talented – but dysfunctional – rosters. The Bulldogs had high-level recruits like Renardo Sidney, Dee Bost, Rodney Hood, and Arnett Moultrie on their teams, but the only thing State had to show for it was a pair of NIT appearances and some embarrassing footage of Sidney fighting teammate Elgin Bailey in the stands at a preseason tournament.
Now, Mississippi State is smack-dab in the middle of a rebuilding phase that might carry into 2013-14 and beyond. The Bulldogs have plenty of work to do if they want to emerge as an upper-tier program in the SEC once again. In order to figure out just where new coach Rick Ray and his staff need to start, we turned to the experts. Braden Bishop is a contributor at the Mississippi State blog For Whom the Cowbell Tolls. He took some time to focus away from the Bulldogs’ upcoming Gator Bowl match-up to answer some questions about MSU’s outlook for the season. His answers are below:
Rush the Court: Mississippi State is going through a top-to-bottom rebuilding process in 2012-13. Not only are the Bulldogs replacing their four top scorers from last year, but they’ll do it without longtime coach Rick Stansbury. What can SEC fans expect out of State and new head coach Rick Ray this season?
Braden Bishop, For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: State fans should expect exactly what they’re seeing: a brand new head coach getting his feet wet, an inexperienced group of freshmen battling big-time SEC and national competition, and poor shooting nights mixed with lots of turnovers. But I don’t necessarily mean that negatively. That is an honest approach to a reality-filled season. On the positive note, MSU fans are seeing more heart and hustle from this year’s team than last year’s. Even though State was loaded talent-wise last season, not a lot of defense or grit was seen in the second half of the season. At 3-5 thus far and only practicing with nine players, MSU is learning quickly they need Jalen Steele back from a November injury as soon as possible.
RTC: The Bulldogs fired Rick Stansbury last year despite his success on the recruiting trail and moderate success on the court. Was that the right decision for Mississippi State? Will Rick Ray be able to recruit similarly talented players?
BB: Not sure we can call the Stansbury change right or wrong just yet. Did State need a transition last April? Yes. No doubt about it. But saying it is right or wrong might not be answered fully until the end of next season. I believe Stansbury, Mississippi State’s all-time winningest basketball coach, had taken State as far as he possibly could in his 14 seasons, which included six NCAA and five NIT tournaments. He was never able to take his teams past the Second Round of the NCAA tournament. Stansbury could always recruit. But recruiting does nothing when you cannot advance any further than the Second Round in March. The “other” Rick is already making his presence known with recruiting at MSU. Ray will definitely have a pull in states like Mississippi and Alabama but also in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and South Carolina.
RTC: Junior Jalen Steele is arguably the team’s most important veteran presence, but he’s out for up to six weeks with a broken wrist. How much has his absence affected the Bulldogs, and what do you expect him to bring to the table when he’s finally healthy and SEC play begins?
BB: Jalen’s ability to shoot beyond the arc, his obvious experience, and his decision-making are crucial items that this young squad have missed out on. But his injury has been bittersweet. On the good end, MSU has been able to give players like Fred Thomas, Trivante Bloodman, and Craig Sword (all freshmen) experience. Look for Steele to be back in time for SEC play. The big question is will his shooting and stamina be back, too.
RTC: Sword and Gavin Ware were both standout recruits in the class of 2012, and both have been pressed into big minutes as true freshmen. Can we expect to see them stick in the starting lineup throughout their careers? Ware, like Renardo Sidney before him, has also battled weight issues as a big man. Can he stay slim(-ish) and still be effective in the SEC?
BB: Gavin (7.5 PPG) is a very young but hard worker for MSU. He’s recently battled senior Wendell Lewis (8.1 PPG) the last few weeks for the starting center position. With the exception of last week’s game versus Texas-San Antonio, Lewis has been almost nonexistent down low given his previous experience. Gavin is a local kid and has been around MSU his entire life. Look for that to play a big role in his future with the Bulldogs. Sword, a former Mr. Basketball from Alabama, is averaging 8.1 points and 26.5 minutes per game through eight games. He has a tenacity on the floor and goes full speed with or without the ball. Look for both men to make differences for the Bulldogs the next couple of seasons.
RTC: With a down year looming in Starkville, how are the fans reacting? Has it been hard to find available seats at Humphrey Coliseum? Will marquee games against Florida and Missouri sell out?
BB: MSU fans are still enjoying what they can with football. The home games MSU basketball have had thus far have not broken any attendance records but basketball also reaches a different type of fan in November and December. For example, State’s last home game saw an attendance of only a few thousand. Not that great of a turnout but students were not in full force on the campus either. Unless you’re Kentucky, Vanderbilt, or Florida, SEC students hardly ever show up in arenas before first semester final exams. That’s not an excuse for our student body, only an observation I’ve noticed. Plenty of seats will be available in The Hump this season, including the Gators on January 26, and Missouri on February 13. Fun games, indeed, but probably not fun results to witness.
RTC: What underclassman on the MSU roster could end up emerging as an All-SEC player in 2013 and beyond?
BB: Thus far, sophomore forward Roquez Johnson has really turned some heads. Johnson, who only saw action in 13 games and tallied 49 minutes last season, has really led MSU since the Steele injury. Ro is averaging a team-high 13.3 points per game and is second-best on the team in rebounding with six boards a game. After him, freshman guard Fred Thomas is making a name for himself. This time last season, Thomas was carrying a well-balance 6A Mississippi team to an eventual state title in March. He has a knack for hitting big shots when needed, and even has a pretty wicked-looking flat top. Be on the lookout for Craig Sword and sophomore guard Trivante Bloodman to make splashes for MSU in the coming seasons. FYI: State could also see freshman guards Jacoby Davis and Andre Applewhite (who are both out due to torn ACLs) make impacts for Rick Ray in the next few years.
RTC: Alright, Rick Stansbury is out, so let’s be honest here: was Mrs. Stansbury’s screaming and, uh, colorful language behind the MSU bench as annoying to State fans as it was to visitors and opposing teams? Are you guys happy you don’t have to deal with that anymore?
BB: Meo was definitely the No. 1 basketball fan when it came to cheering and yelling from the home side. She was a staple of Humphrey Coliseum. MSU faithful knew she was at the game when Arnett Moultrie slammed or Timmy Bowers knocked down a mid-range jumper. Not quite sure her trademark black blouse and flaring of arms wilding will be missed by many Bulldogs.
It looks like Mississippi State’s rebuilding project could end sooner than expected if recruits like Sword and Ware pan out. Thanks to Braden for all his help – you can read his work over at www.forwhomthecowbelltolls.com and find him on Twitter at @TBradenBishop.