By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – When Jamal Crawford of the Atlanta Hawks pulled up and drained a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Phoenix Suns on Friday, what most people saw was a clutch play that made the rounds on the highlight reels.
Barry Stewart saw something else. And he remembered that play when it came his time to make something happen.
As the seconds ticked away the next day in Mississippi State’s game against Georgia, Stewart went high in the air and blocked a 3-point shot by Ricky McPhee that could’ve tied the game.
After MSU’s 72-69 win, Stewart recalled watching that Suns-Hawks game. He noted that Crawford caught Phoenix defender Jared Dudley on his heels, which gave him plenty of room to shoot.
“I didn’t want to have (McPhee) catching me on my heels,” Stewart said. “So I stayed close enough to him I could contest him, and I got the block.”
It was one of many frustrating moments for McPhee, who was held to six points and hit just 1 of 4 from 3-point range. He entered the game shooting 41.9 percent from behind the arc.
McPhee is not alone. Many a potent scorer has looked pedestrian at the hands of Stewart, a 6-foot-3, 170-pound senior guard and master defender. That’s not always something fans and media notice, but Stewart is used to being overlooked.
It’s never stopped him from toiling away at a craft that’s underappreciated unless you’re, say, MSU center Jarvis Varnado and are about to become the NCAA’s all-time blocks leader.
When exiting the interview room Saturday, point guard Dee Bost pointed at Stewart and said he was the second-best defender in the country – behind only Varnado.
That might not be such an exaggeration.
Actually, it’s not entirely true that nobody has noticed the extra work Stewart has put in. The Shelbyville Central (Tenn.) High School football coaches would be going over film on Sundays when they’d hear the bouncing of a basketball on the nearby court.
It would be Stewart, and maybe a teammate he’d dragged into the gym.
“Barry has spent more time in the gym than any player that I’ve ever coached,” said Kevin Thomas, who’s in his 11th year at Shelbyville Central and 15th year of coaching. “There wasn’t a Sunday that went by that he didn’t come by my house and get my keys to go to the gym.”
Being a gym rat is all Stewart has ever known. His parents, Frank and Faye Buckingham, worked with him from the time he was 7 years old. Both of them played high school basketball, and Frank played for two years at Motlow State Community College in Lynchburg.
Frank was a 6-4 post known for his defense, often taking on opponents six or seven inches taller. Stewart embraced the defensive side of the game right away.
“A lot of kids, they grow up and see people getting credit for scoring the most points or who has the highlights and dunking it, shooting threes and things,” Stewart said. “But defense is a part of winning, and it’s a part of winning championships.
“I learned at an early age, my mom and dad would teach me different parts of the game, and defense is one of those areas that everybody don’t take pride in. But the ones that do usually come out on top.”
Stewart is not the sort of player who will go for 25 or 30 points in a game, but he’s not someone opponents can afford to ignore. If he makes 23 more 3-point shots, he’ll pass Darryl Wilson as the school’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers.
This season, Stewart is shooting 36.6 percent from behind the arc and averaging 11.1 points per game, fourth on the team. He’s often drawn criticism from fans for his shot-making ability, but he hasn’t let that keep him from shooting.
At Shelbyville, Stewart was the team’s leading scorer as a senior point guard, averaging 23.1 points as the Golden Eagles reached the Class AAA state final. He was named Mr. Basketball for his classification.
And he worked on his offensive game. Early in his high school career, Stewart decided he wanted to dunk. So his father loaded down a wheelbarrow with 200 pounds of sand and had Stewart push it up a hill behind their house, all summer long.
“By the end of the summer, he was dunking the ball,” Buckingham said. “He’s always worked, he’s always wanted to do things to help improve his game.”
Using his head
During games at Shelbyville Central, Stewart could often be heard calling out plays – the other team’s plays. That was a result of his intense scouting report study, something he still does today.
Stewart is good at picking up on his opponents’ tendencies, knowing where on the floor they like to shoot from, how they fit into the offense, what kind of screens they like to use.
He’s able to slow down the game by breaking down the film, and come game time, it’s mostly a matter of him reacting to situations. It’s why MSU coach Rick Stansbury, as Thomas did at Shelbyville, always assigns Stewart to the opponent’s best perimeter player.
“One thing Barry’s always had, he’s had a great mind for the game of defense,” Stansbury said. “He anticipates very well, he sees the next play happening before it happens.”
Against Arkansas last week, Stewart held hot-shooting Rotnei Clarke to six points, 13 below his season average, on 2-of-9 shooting.
“He’s smart, he understands angles,” Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said. “I just think he’s very, very intelligent defensively. On top of that, he’s physically very talented, been very blessed.”
Stewart’s only about 20 pounds heavier than he was in high school, and no taller. He sees that as an advantage, as he can use quickness to hound foes.
He’s a quiet sort, which is one reason he doesn’t stand out or get much recognition outside Starkville.
Stewart’s influence is invaluable, though, as evidenced by the improved defense of guys like Bost and junior Ravern Johnson. Stewart and Varnado are about the best lead-by-example types a coach could hope for.
Stewart’s teammates see his work, and so do his coaches and parents. And if everyone else will look closely enough, they’ll see the result of all that work.
“They usually say defense is about wanting to,” Stewart said of his parents. “Anybody can play defense, you just have to want to.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.