The Bruins have plenty of young dudes with 'tudes, and coach Jim Harrick will miss departed seniors Ed O'Bannon, Tyus Edney and George Zidek, who steered the team to the national championship last season—and not just because all of them were good enough to make the NBA. O'Bannon was the unchallenged drill sergeant of that unit, and without a significant senior left on the roster, a child shall have to lead the Bruins. Which is fine with them. "The only fun thing about last year was the winning," Bailey says. "It was like getting scolded, like getting yelled at. This year we're looser. It's more fun."
The talent is ample. Sophomores Bailey and Henderson will be unleashed to become stars, and junior Cameron Dollar replaces Edney at the point. The center spot will be manned by either junior Ike Nwankwo, sophomore omm'A Givens or highly recruited freshman Jelani McCoy, who averaged more than eight blocks and shot 87.5% from the field as a senior in high school.
Look for the almighty Dollar to become the team's babysitter and direct the baby Bruins back to the Final Four in the Meadowlands, the same gym where Ed O'Bannon is now playing with the New Jersey Nets. Hmmm, maybe these Bruins are still following Ed after all.
4. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs could do something this year that only six teams in the last 15 years have accomplished. What is it?
Believe it or not, they can reach the Final Four for the first time—a feat few schools accomplish these days. Since 1980, only Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Seton Hall have become first-time participants in the Final Four. The Bulldogs could well join the club.
That would be quite a leap for a school that has lost 10 of its last 11 SEC tournament games, claims the immortal Bailey Howell as the best player in school history and before last year had won only one NCAA tournament game ever—in 1963—in a consolation round. But good tournament teams often feature a solid inside-outside combination, and the Bulldogs have perhaps the best in the nation in Erick Dampier and Darryl Wilson. Dampier, a 6'1" junior center, was a first-team All-SEC selection last season, scoring 13.1 points per game while finishing fourth in the nation in shooting percentage (.640). Wilson, a 6'1" senior shooting guard, scored 17.8 points a game in 1994-95, making 94 of 227 shots from three-point range, even though he was playing with stress fractures in both shins. Together they led a team that finished 22-8, with wins over Kentucky and Arkansas, and reached the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual champion UCLA.
The new ingredient that will make the difference for the Bulldogs is forward Dontae' Jones, widely considered the best junior college player in the nation last season. Jones dropped out of his Nashville high school as a senior in the fall of 1992, worked in a fast-food restaurant and played in a midnight basketball league before passing a high school equivalency exam and being offered a chance to play at Northeast Mississippi Community College. Says Jones, "I've had some tough times, and I was kind of an unsung hero at home, if you know what I mean."
Fans in Starkville, who for years never had much to cheer about during basketball season, know exactly what he means.