Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Uncertainty hangs over Mississippi's Big Four men's basketball teams like a death cloud over a doomed city in some lurid pulp novel. Are the Rebels and Eagles really that good? Or are the Tigers and Bulldogs really that bad?
The answer is a definite "maybe." Or maybe not.
Ole Miss has been reeling off wins against record-friendly opponents. Southern Miss has been playing even worse competition, but they have had trouble beating NCAA teams. Mississippi State has played a tougher schedule and has been unable to close out games. Jackson State has been overmatched most nights.
The real season begins in January when the conference play starts. Here's Doctor S' SWAG (sophisticated wild-ass guesses) on how the Big Four cagers will fare.
Coach: Rick Stansbury (10th season, 185-104)
2006-07: 21-14 (8-8 SEC), tied for SEC West title, lost in semifinals of NIT
Arena: Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville
Radio: 105.9 FM
Mississippi State was picked to finish second in the SEC West this season, but so far it's been difficult to see why. The Bulldogs staggered to a 6-5 start, although the preseason schedule has been tougher than usual. For example, the Bulldogs are making two trips to California before conference play begins. Other non-conference foes include Clemson, Miami and Missouri.
Good news for State fans: When the Bulldogs make their annual trip to Jackson on Jan. 5, they should be able to beat Lafayette.
On paper, the Bulldogs appear to be loaded. Jamont Gordon (17.2 points and 7 rebounds a game) was a preseason first-team All-SEC choice. Lanier alum Charles Rhodes (14.7 points, 6.8 rebounds) was a second-team pick. The Delk twins were allowed to leave to make room in the lineup for Barry Stewart (11.2 ppg) and Ben Hansbrough (9.6 ppg). So far, they have been underwhelming.
The dynamic duo has had its problems, too. Gordon went 1-for-14 from the field in the loss at South Alabama. And Rhodes, a senior, didn't start a game because he didn't show up for breakfast that day.
Coach Rick Stansbury is close to becoming MSU's all-time winningest coach. The Bulldogs might keep him waiting.
"You see how we're playing right now?" Stansbury asked the Columbus Commercial Dispatch. "How much do you think I'm thinking about (the record) right now? There are a lot more things (that matter). .... Right now is about us continuing to get better as a basketball team."
Declining. The Bulldogs have the talent (if not the coaching) to make it to the NCAA Tournament. But if they don't put things together soon, this winter could be ugly.
Coach: Tevester Anderson (sixth season, 63-65)
2006-07: 21-14 (12-6 SWAC), won SWAC Tournament, lost in first round of NCAA Tournament.
Arena: Athletics and Assembly Center, Jackson
Radio: 1300 AM
There's a big hole in Jackson State's lineup where Trey Johnson, the nation's No. 2 scorer last season, used to be.
"It's hard when you take 28 points off a team," guard Catraiva Givens told The Clarion-Ledger in November. "You've got kids shooting that aren't used to shooting. Once everybody settles down and accepts their role, we'll get better and better."
The Tigers started this season with a 1-10 record, which included a number of beatdowns on the road. But those games provide the money that pays the bills.
"I think we're getting a little tougher," Coach Tevester Anderson told The Clarion-Ledger. "They're learning how you have to play at this level."
Grant Maxey leads the Tigers in scoring with 14.5 points per game. Behind him are Murrah alum Jeremy Caldwell (11.5 ppg) and Darrion Griffin (10.6 ppg).
A glance at some other stats reveals the Tigers' problems. They are being out-rebounded by almost 7 rebounds a game and are turning the ball over more than 18 times a game. And they have made just 29 percent of their 3-pointers. Statistics are for losers, they say, and those are definitely a loser's stats.
Outlook: Sunny. Yes, that's right. The preseason means almost nothing in the SWAC. And the Tigers' brutal performances now should serve them well in the conference wars this winter. Sports critics have picked JSU to repeat as SWAC champions. There's no reason to think the Tigers won't bring home the trophy again.
Coach: Andy Kennedy (second season, 21-13)
2006-07: 21-13 (8-8 SEC), tied for SEC West title, lost in second round of NIT
Arena: Tad Smith Coliseum, Oxford
Radio: 97.3 FM
Andy Kennedy has made Ole Miss basketball matter again. The Rebels started this season with a 9-0 record. Of course, playing seven of those games in Mississippi didn't hurt. And it's not like the Rebels have played a bunch of NCAA teams, either.
The Rebels played in Jackson a couple of weeks ago for the first time in almost 20 years. A crowd of 4,413 turned out to see the Rebels beat Winthrop (which was an NCAA team last year). Kennedy called the trip a success.
"The reason we came to Jackson was for us to thank our Ole Miss people," Kennedy told the Columbus Commercial Dispatch. "… We'll continue to bring it if they continue to support it like they did tonight, and I have no doubt they will."
Kennedy was SEC Coach of the Year last season after leading the Rebels to their first 20-win season and division title since 2001.
Kennedy has also made the Rebels fun to watch again. The running Rebels average almost 90 points a game and have five players averaging in double figures. Senior Dwayne Curtis leads the Rebels with 14.8 points and 8.4 rebounds a game. Freshman Chris Warren has established his presence early with 14.6 points a game.
"I'm like every coach at this time, and we're certainly a work in progress," Kennedy told Rivals.com. "… We're still trying to figure things out with so many new players, but kids are stepping up and making plays when we need to in order to win games."
Outlook: Promising, despite the Rebels being picked to finish last in their division. The SEC appears to be a little down this season, so the Rebels should be able to make a run for the SEC West title again.
Coach: Larry Eustachy (fourth season, 44-51)
2006-07: 20-11 (9-7 CUSA)
Arena: Reed Green Coliseum, Hattiesburg
Radio: 1180 AM/103.3 FM
Southern Miss started this season with an 8-3 record that impressed nobody. Three of the Golden Eagles' victories came against NAIA clubs. Thus, we can deduce that USM would be the favorite to win the GCAC title against the likes of Belhaven, Tougaloo and William Carey. The CUSA is a different matter.
It's tough to figure out why coach Larry Eustachy has scheduled so many lightweights. Is the former "Mr. Natty Light" trying to build confidence by letting the Eagles kick a little ass? Or can USM not afford to bring anybody better to Hattiesburg?
The Eagles had a breakthrough season last year, going 20-11, their first 20-victory season under Eustachy. USM has been picked to finish fourth in CUSA this season, which sounds about right.
Former Murrah star Jeremy Wise, last year's CUSA Freshman and Newcomer of the Year, has picked up right where he left off. He's averaging 17.6 points a game. R.L. Horton, a freshman from Lanier, stepped right into the Eagles starting lineup where he's averaging 14.5 points. Courtney Beasley is putting up 12.1 points a night. Brandon Jones is USM's top rebounder with 9.5 a game.
Eustachy spent his first two seasons in Hattiesburg purging his roster. He seems satisfied with the results.
"I love where this program is right now," Eustachy told the Hattiesburg American on Dec. 6. "… We're a young team, an immature team, but we've got a lot of young talent."
Outlook: Improving, but ... USM isn't ready to challenge for the CUSA title. Then again, as long as John Calipari is at Memphis, nobody is. The Eagles should finish in the top half of the league, but their toilet-paper-tough non-conference schedule is going to harm their chances of playing in the postseason.
Some of this season's top games (all games are men unless noted otherwise):
Dec. 28: Ole Miss vs. Southern Miss (7 p.m., Southaven, 97.3 FM/1180 AM/103.3 FM): The Rebels play the Golden Eagles for the first time since 1995.
Dec. 29: Millsaps women at Belhaven (1:30 p.m., Jackson): The neighborhood rivals clash.
Dec. 30: Missouri at Mississippi State (12:30 p.m., Starkville, FSN South/105.9 FM): The Bulldogs face another tough non-SEC foe.
Jan. 5: Mississippi State vs. Lafayette (2 p.m., Mississippi Coliseum, Jackson): The Bulldogs travel to Jackson for their final pre-SEC game.
Jan. 8: Central Florida at Southern Miss (8 p.m., Hattiesburg, CSS/1180 AM/103.3 FM): The Golden Eagles begin CUSA play.
Jan. 12: William Carey at Belhaven (7 p.m., Jackson): The Baptists call on the Presbyterians. … LSU at Ole Miss (5 p.m., Oxford, 97.3 FM): This should be more competitive than the football series.
Jan. 15: Kentucky at Mississippi State (8 p.m., Starkville, ESPN/105.9 FM): Starkville always heats up when the Wildcats are in town.
Jan. 16: Florida at Ole Miss (7 p.m., Oxford, Ch. 12/97.3 FM): The Rebels entertain the two-time defending NCAA champs.
Jan. 19: Southern Miss at Memphis (8 p.m., Memphis, Tenn., CSS/1180 AM/103.3 FM): The Eagles call on one of the nation's top teams.
Jan. 24: Tougaloo at Belhaven (7:30 p.m., Jackson): The intra-city rivals meet in a GCAC grudge match.
Jan. 26: Ole Miss at Mississippi State (4 p.m., Starkville, FSN South/97.3 FM/105.9 FM): The ancient rivals renew their feud.
Feb. 1: Rhodes at Millsaps (8 p.m., Jackson): The Majors entertain the team they love to hate at the Hangar.
Feb. 2: Tennessee at Mississippi State (6 p.m., Starkville, FSN South/105.9 FM): The Vols are the preseason SEC favorite.
Feb. 9: Alcorn State at Jackson State (5:30 p.m., Jackson, 1300 AM): The Tigers entertain their country cousins.
Feb. 16: Arkansas at Mississippi State (3 p.m., Starkville, ESPN/105.9 FM): Will this game settle the SEC West?
Feb. 23: Texas-Tyler at Mississippi College (3 p.m., Clinton): The Choctaws play their ASC regular-season finale.
March 1: Memphis at Southern Miss (3 p.m., Hattiesburg, CSTV/1180 AM/103.3 FM): Can the Eagles derail the Tigers' march to the CUSA crown? … Mississippi Valley State at Jackson State (5:30 p.m., Jackson): Will the Delta Devils bring 40 minutes of hell to the Tigers?
March 4: Arkansas at Ole Miss (8 p.m., Oxford, ESPN/97.3 FM): Sparks will fly when the Hogs hit Oxford.
The SEC West appears to be out of reach for any school in Alabama and Louisiana. Throw in the fact that arkansas and MSU look awfully mediocre and you'd think that umiss might have a good shot. I would bet that it all comes down to the last weekend. The medocri....err..... parity in this league is amazing.