To begin the 2008-09 season, Mississippi State had to adjust to life without Ben Hansbrough, Charles Rhodes, and do-everything guard Jamont Gordon.
It was not an easy transition as the Bulldogs lost to Washington State, Texas Tech, Charlotte, Cincinnati, and San Diego before entering 2009.
Conference play was mainly an exercise in mediocrity as the team finished 9-7 and in third place in the SEC West.
However, to avoid NIT purgatory, Mississippi State defeated Georgia, South Carolina, LSU, and Tennessee to win the SEC Tournament and earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Mississippi State's momentum stayed in Tampa, Florida as the Bulldogs lost to Washington 71-58 in the first round in the West bracket and ended their season with a record of 23-13.
This year's version of the Bulldogs features all five starters returning and new recruits to help inside. The Bulldogs have the nation's top shot blocker and strong three-point shooting. Based on last year's results, the team needs to reduce its turnovers and rebound better.
Dee Bost will again be the starting point guard for the Bulldogs. As a freshman, Bost took control of the team and showed leadership way beyond his experience level.
Last season, Bost started all 36 games and averaged 10.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. Bost has gained weight in hopes of improving his ability to finish his drives to the basket. Bost also needs to commit fewer turnovers than the 102 he had last year.
This year marks the third year that senior Barry Stewart will be starting for the Bulldogs. The 6'3" guard averaged 12.4 points last year and made 72 three-pointers. Stewart will be looked upon to make the big shot for the Bulldogs at the end of games.
Junior swingman Ravern Johnson looks to improve upon the 83 three-pointers he made last year. The designated gunner also needs to become tougher on defense.
Depending on the alignment, Phil Turner will be the fourth starting guard or one of the first players off the bench. At only 6'3", he averaged 5.5 rebounds and gave the team a physical presence in the backcourt.
Freshman Shaunessy Smith will be a valuable backup at both guard positions. Reserves Twany Beckham and Riley Benock will make their biggest impacts during garbage time in games against such teams as SE Louisiana, UT-Pan American, Centenary, and Mississippi Valley State.
For most of last season, 6'9" Jarvis Varnado was the only big man the Bulldogs had on the floor. Although the team was outrebounded by their opponents, Varnado controlled the post defensively by blocking an amazing 170 shots.
The returning SEC Defensive Player of the Year needs only 19 blocks for the all-time conference lead and 142 for the NCAA record. Along with his defensive prowess, Varnado averaged 12.9 points last season.
Sophomore forward Kodi Augustus hopes to stay on coach Rick Stansbury's good side and improve upon his 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds from last year. Athletic sophomore Romero Osby and freshman Wendell Lewis look to provide depth inside. Burly forward Elgin Bailey will also be in the mix as long as he is recovered from a severe ankle dislocation suffered last March versus Florida.
The amount of improvement the Bulldogs achieve inside will depend on the eligibility of and production by freshmen John Riek and Renardo Sidney.
Riek is a 7'2" center originally from the Sudan. He will be able to play for the Bulldogs after sitting out the first nine games. Riek will immediately give Mississippi State another shot blocker and an inside scorer.
Sidney was a surprise signee by the Bulldogs as he was thought to be going to either USC or UCLA. Sidney is a five-star power forward from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles who has been ruled academically eligible.
However, questions about his amateur status remain as the NCAA investigates how his family paid for two homes during the two years it lived in California. The Bulldogs remain optimistic that Sidney will play for the Bulldogs this season.
Even if Sidney is not able to play for Mississippi State this year, Mississippi State is the favorite to win the SEC West and a near lock to make the NCAA Tournament. However, if Sidney plays this year, the Bulldogs could be the best team in the SEC and advance to the Sweet 16 or beyond.