After going 21-10 last season and winning the SEC West and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, MSU, with just 2 starters (Bowers, Harper) and 3 key backups (Campbell, Frazier, Vincent) returning, has a great deal of holes to fill. Included among those holes are two starting forwards (Austin and Ignerski) and the starting point guard (Zimmerman). Junior Mario Austin, an All-SEC selection, declared for the NBA Draft. MSU was counting on several newcomers, forwards Travis Outlaw and Wojciech Barycz, to fill the void left with the loss of Austin and Ignerski, but both were either drafted by the NBA (Outlaw) or signed with a European pro team (Barycz). A third front court player that MSU was expected to sign but didn't due to an NCAA investigation of Auburn and academics - 6-9 high school center Jackie Butler - will wind up in prep school this coming season. MSU's strength this season will be its backcourt, most of which returns with the exception of Zimmerman. MSU coach Rick Stansbury addressed his concerns and optimism about this year's team during Friday's SEC basketball summer teleconference.
"It is very obvious that we took a hit losing players. (Senior point guard) Derrick Zimmerman was drafted in the second round and (staring forward) Iggy (Michal Ignerski) graduated. A couple of young men that we were depending on, Mario (Austin) and (high school signee) Travis Outlaw were lost to the draft. Anytime you lose kids like that unexpectedly, it leaves a hole for us. We have good experiences in the backcourt. We will be depending on a freshman point guard a lot in Gary Ervin. He has a lot of potential. Timmy Bowers is a terrific player. Harper is back. Frazier is back. We have Shane Power, who had to sit out last year. I like my perimeter (players) but we will be new there. I like my pieces there, but we just don't have a lot of depth up front."
Q & A:
Talk about your recruiting this year and what you will be recruiting for next year.
"Gary Ervin and Dietric Slater are our two new kids. There was another player that we lost to the draft, a Polish kid that we signed that I thought would be a terrific player. We lost him about a month ago to the best team in the European basketball league. We lost three guys to the pro leagues kind of unexpectedly. With the departure of those guys, there is no question that we need front line help. We are in the process of adding to that (this recruiting season)."
With the loss of Mario and the other two players that you lost, Marcus Campbell might be the most experienced guy coming back. Do you think he is ready to take that next step?
"I wish I had the answer to that. If I had the answer, I might drive a little more comfortably down the road. That is a question that won't be answered until November, December and January. Do I think Marcus Campbell has potential? Yes, I do. He has been waiting for this opportunity and he now has it. I think he is a huge key to how good we can be as a basketball team, especially because of the lack of depth up front. He is a big guy that can do some good things, but he has never done it consistently at this level."
You've lost two high school players to the draft, Bender and Outlaw. Does that alter your recruiting philosophy at all?
"There is no question that it has. I made a decision two years ago not to recruit a big man that is from within this state just because of these past two situations. (He is referring to center Al Jefferson.-Gene) Some of them you have to go after, but those you know who have been talking about going to the NBA and who are already projected to go to the NBA, I've been down that road twice and I don't want to go down it any more. You can't fault the kids. It's not their fault. As long as the system allows them to go, you can't fault the kids for entering the draft."
What are the strengths of your team and what are your major areas of concern?
"We lost three guys off the front line that are playing pro ball right now, Travis Outlaw, Mario Austin and (Wojciech) Barycz. Because of that, we don't have depth in the front court at all. Branden Vincent and Marcus Campbell are basically the only two with any experience.
"I think our team will be good in the perimeter. I think Gary Ervin is going to be a terrific point guard. There is no question that Timmy Bowers is one of the better guards in this league. We need (Winsome) Frazier and (Ontario) Harper to continue to step up. We'll see how (Iowa State transfer) Shane Power recovers from the injury he suffered in December. He had some knee surgery. We will need him at full speed."
Do you think the SEC West is going to be more wide open this year with the loss of so many good players?
"It seems like we have this same conversation every year, talking about how well balanced it is. There is no question that the last two years we and Alabama have been the two teams that have gone into the summer picked one or two. But, we've both lost players. Ole Miss returns some experience and probably the best two players on this side with experience in Harper and Reed. Auburn returns some guys up front with some experience. It's going to be another interesting year. I think that everybody has an opportunity."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher and owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial site for Mississippi State sports since October, 1996. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org