By David Brandt/The Associated Press
STARKVILLE — Renardo Sidney hasn’t been humbled many times in his basketball career.
But after a tumultuous winter that’s included eligibility trouble with the NCAA, weight problems and a televised fistfight with a teammate, the 6-foot-10 sophomore considers himself a lucky man.
“I’m just glad to still be a Bulldog,” Sidney said.
At times it seemed like the turmoil surrounding Sidney, who was one of the nation’s top recruits coming out of high school in 2009, would swallow his career before it started.
But over the past month, Sidney has cast aside his past issues and is producing on the court. He’s averaging 13.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, helping the Bulldogs win four of their last five heading into this week’s Southeastern Conference tournament.
Mississippi State (17-13, 9-7 SEC) will face the winner of the LSU/Vanderbilt game at 9 p.m. CT on Thursday at the Georgia Dome.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said Sidney has finally started to mature off the court, displaying a contrite attitude and willingness to learn that’s greatly improved his approach when he’s on the court.
Most importantly, he’s stayed out of trouble. And for the first time since December, Sidney talked publicly about his constant problems and what he’s done to become a better basketball player and person.
“He couldn’t have done that six months because he wouldn’t have understood,” Stansbury said. “He had nothing to compare it to. Now he’s got something to compare it to. You’ve heard me say this plenty of times — there’s no substitute for experience.”
Considering the time lapse since his last public comments, Sidney had plenty to address. He didn’t shy away from any topics.
— On his fistfight with teammate Elgin Bailey on Dec. 23 that led to both being suspended: “It was a big mistake. Me and Elgin were very close and he was my roommate, and I’m sad that it happened.” Both players were reinstated after a two-game suspension, but Bailey has since transferred to Southeastern Louisiana
— On his conditioning issues, which are still an obvious problem: “I put myself into that predicament by not coming into the season in shape and overweight. My attitude was bad. Right now, I’m just trying to stay focused and keep moving forward.”
— On how the constant criticism from national and local media has affected him: “It hurts. Everything people said about me. I’m still a young kid, but I try to take it as motivation when I’m practicing and thinking about all the negative things that people say about me, and try to take it as a positive and keep working on it.”
And slowly, Sidney has turned into a dominant post presence.
The 21-year-old still tires easily, averaging only 25.6 minutes per game. But he’s becoming more consistent, with four double-doubles in his past nine games.
“His talent’s ridiculous, as far as his size and skill level,” senior forward Riley Benock said. “I don’t know if you can put a ceiling on him. It’s about whatever he wants to get out of it.”
Sidney’s emergence has coincided with a relative calm for the Bulldogs, a rarity for a team that’s endured suspensions for three starters and a season-ending knee injury to one of its key backups.
Mississippi State ended the regular season with three straight wins against Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina, and views itself as a serious contender to win the SEC Tournament. Stansbury’s Bulldogs have played well at the tournament of late — winning the title in 2009 and advancing to the finals in 2010 before losing to Kentucky.
Now with Sidney contributing more and causing less trouble, there’s hope for another run.
“We’re real confident because if we play the way we supposed to play, we’ve got the best (starting) five in the league,” point guard Dee Bost said. “If we just put it together we can make a run.”