While most college basketball insiders had programs like North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio State in their preseason polls, one particular team, which resides in the same conference as Kentucky, has really opened some eyes in the early season.
That team: Mississippi State.
A year ago, the Mississippi State Bulldogs saw their program sink to an all-time low, and expectations were somewhat optimistic coming into the 2011-2012 season. However, the Bulldogs have caught the attention of the college basketball nation recently. Although it is early in the season, fans are wondering whether or not the Bulldogs are contenders or pretenders.
Mississippi State opened the season with a 76-66 home win over Eastern Kentucky and followed that with a puzzling 68-58 home loss to Akron, leaving Bulldogs fans befuddled. However, the Bulldogs have righted the ship and reeled off six consecutive wins.
Mississippi State currently sports a 7-1 record and is ranked 21st (Associated Press) and 24th (ESPN Coaches). It is the first time the Bulldogs have been ranked since the 2009-2010 season.
While many were searching for answers after the Akron loss, the Bulldogs maintained their composure. Two wins during the streak were over ranked teams: Texas A&M (69-60) and Arizona (67-57). Those two wins helped Mississippi State win the 2K Sports Classic (Coaches versus Cancer title) at Madison Square Garden in New York.
This season has gotten off to a great start for MSU, but the previous year was a disaster. After starting last season at 4-0, things were looking upward for Mississippi State when the unthinkable happened. A fight between two teammates—Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey—gained national attention.
The altercation happened during a holiday tournament in Hawaii. Both Sidney and Bailey were suspended, but the Sidney was reinstated and Bailey ended up transferring to another program.
Sidney's reinstatement did not sit well with many MSU fans and media, leaving many to question head coach Rick Stansbury. The former McDonald's high school All-American would remain with the team, but that did not stop the internal bleeding, and the Bulldogs ended the season with a disappointing 17-14 record.
It was a bitter end to a season that started with great promise. Rumors surfaced that Stansbury, MSU's all-time winningest coach, would lose his job, but he would survive.
Stansbury, in his 14th year with Mississippi State, has the second-longest tenure of any coach in the Southeastern Conference behind Florida's Billy Donovan. His resume is impressive: six NCAA tournament appearances, four NIT appearances, two SEC Tournament championships and five SEC Western Division titles.
However, where Stansbury has had a problem throughout his career at Mississippi State is convincing his players to remain with the program.
Over the course of his career at MSU, Stansbury has lost 13 players to transferring. Former starting guard Ben Hansbourgh left Mississippi State following the 2007-2008 season to transfer to Notre Dame, where he would become the Big East Player of the Year his senior season. Two players from last season, including Bailey, have transferred.
This has many wondering what's wrong with the Mississippi State basketball program. However, it is the in-house transfer of a player this season that is paying huge dividends.
Forward Arnett Moultrie transferred to MSU from UTEP (Texas El-Paso) after the 2009-2010 season. The 6'11" big man, along with Sidney, gives the Bulldogs an imposing front line. Moultrie is a workaholic a la Dennis Rodman on the glass (team-leading 10.8 boards) and is second in scoring (16.0 points per game).
Moultrie dominated an Arizona team, minus last year's NBA first-round draft pick Derrick Williams, to the tune of 19 points and 10 rebounds. The breakout game happened on his 21st birthday.
MSU's other four starters have been huge. Point guard Dee Bost, in his fourth year as a starter, leads Mississippi State in scoring at 17 points a game. Bost has also been a pest on the defensive end (2.5 steals). Other notable starters include freshman swingman Rodney Hood (13.0 ppg), senior guard Brian Bryant (8.4 ppg) and Sidney (8.2 ppg).
For a freshman, Hood has been better than advertised. Wise beyond his years, the 6'8" Hood has a cool demeanor and can play multiple positions (small forward, shooting guard and point guard). He also has pedigree: His father (Rickey) is a former MSU player.
The talented but enigmatic Sidney looks to redeem himself from last year's debacle. After spending the offseason with former NBA guard John Lucas, Sidney worked on his endurance, which was a big problem a season ago. The junior center lost around 30 pounds over the summer, but his conditioning is still a problem this season. He's averaging only 22 minutes a game and has missed two games due to injuries. If the Bulldogs are to reach the postseason, Sidney will have to produce.
Stansbury has not had great depth in reason years, but this season is different. MSU goes eight deep, with players such as guard Jalen Steele (6.3 ppg), freshman point guard Deville Smith (6.0 ppg) and frontcourt player Wendell Lewis (5.8 ppg, 5.6 rebounds) providing the Bulldogs with excellent play off the bench.
Mississippi State has had the luxury of home-cooking early this season. They have yet to play an opponent on the road except for the two neutral-site games in New York.
However, MSU's SEC schedule will be a tough road. Currently, five SEC teams, including MSU, are ranked in the top 25. There are also no split divisions in the conference, which means the Bulldogs will have to survive the brutal conference schedule. A big test will come on February 21, when top-ranked Kentucky visit MSU.
A dismal 9-7 conference record kept the Bulldogs out of postseason play last season. That record will have to improve if MSU hopes to make the NCAA tournament this year.
Stansbury hopes to quiet his critics this season. Mississippi State has not gotten past the second round in the NCAAs under Stansbury. Fans will expect nothing less of an NCAA bid this season, or the long-time coach may have a tough time answering those critics.