Hanging championship banners from the rafters of Humphrey Coliseum has become a welcome tradition at Mississippi State. In three years, the Bulldogs have won an overall Southeastern Conference title and two Western Division crowns to go along with their SEC Tournament championship in 2002. And with each new trophy, the level of expectation rises another notch.
"We've continued to build on previous years," said MSU head coach Rick Stansbury. "We'll never run from expectations. All I've ever asked for as a coach is an opportunity to compete for championships."
That hasn't been a problem. After all, Mississippi State is coming off its first outright SEC regular-season title in 41 years. Now the question is, can the Bulldogs successfully defend their crown? With three starters returning, including the SEC Player of the Year, chants of "repeat" in March are definitely a strong possibility.
FRONTCOURTMississippi State's stock rose considerably when forward Lawrence Roberts decided in June to return for his senior season rather than enter the NBA Draft. After transferring from Baylor just prior to the 2003-04 school year, the 6-foot-9 Roberts quickly established himself as one of the best players in the country. The consensus All-American and SEC Player of the Year led the Bulldogs with 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and will be one of the favorites to win the Wooden Award this year.
A large part of Roberts' success last year can be attributed to unsung big man Branden Vincent. However, Vincent is gone, and the role of space-eater will now be filled by Marcus Campbell.
The 7-footer started the first 14 games in 2003-04, but after a loss to Kentucky, Stansbury opted for a quicker lineup and benched Campbell in favor of guard Shane Power. Still, Campbell was one of the first players off the bench, and he finished the year averaging 6.2 points and 3.9 boards. "I've seen steady improvement in him since he's been here," Stansbury said. "Is he where we want him? No. If he was, he'd be in the NBA with his great size. We just need him to step up and be a force."
Wesley Morgan and Piotr Stelmach became key contributors midway through the season. With each game, both players improved. As a result, their minutes began to increase, as did their expectations for this year. But in the rough-and-tumble SEC, depth in the post is always key, and that's why incoming freshmen Charles Rhodes, Walter Sharpe and Jerrell Houston will be looked upon early and often to contribute. "I like their abilities and the way they all get up and down the court," Stansbury said. "But it's tough to win championships with freshmen."
BACKCOURTFor the third straight year, Mississippi State will have a new starting point guard. However, experience won't be lacking. All-SEC performer Timmy Bowers graduated after winning more games than any other player in school history. Now, it's up to sophomore Gary Ervin to run the offense. Although he didn't start one game, Ervin was a key contributor last season, averaging 5.4 points and 2.5 assists.
Ervin will be flanked by Power and Winsome Frazier, a pair of savvy senior guards. Both proved to be threats from 3-point range last year. Frazier nailed 62 of his 184 attempts, while Power, a transfer from Iowa State, was 38-of-79. They averaged 13.1 and 9.7 points, respectively, and showed the ability to knock down the big shot in key situations.
Depth isn't exactly ample in the backcourt, but junior college transfer Jamall Edmondson should provide some relief at the point. Stansbury also will turn to Ontario Harper, if he's fully recovered from a torn ACL, and Dietric Slater to provide productive minutes.
FINAL ANALYSISEven with a player the caliber of Roberts, wins won't come as easily as they did last season if the supporting cast fails to live up to expectations. But if the two new starters, coupled with the incoming freshmen, can master their new roles, the Bulldogs will once again be in contention to hoist yet another banner.