NEW ORLEANS Mississippi State basketball coach Richard Willi

NEW ORLEANS Mississippi State basketball coach Richard Williams used to be an uptight kind of guy. You know, an intense, toe the line, no laughing on the team bus, no kidding around during the pregame shootarounds kind of court drill sergeant.

Not anymore. No sir, Williams claims to be a changed man. And he gives all the credit to his team, one he calls “the loosest group I’ve ever coached.”

Somebody pinch me. See if I’m awake and believing what I’m writing.

“It’s a fun team to coach,” Williams said Friday afternoon, moments after his “loose” squad had beaten Auburn 69-58 to advance to today’s semifinals of the SEC Tournament. “I pick at the guys and they pick at me. They say some things to me that we can’t print. I say some things to them we can’t print. But we do have fun. They are a fun group of guys to coach.”

Later, Williams added that he wished he could figure them out. “But I’m a basketball coach, not a psychologist,” he said.

Who can say this team’s loose approach is wrong? They march into the semifinals with a 20-7 record, their second consecutive Western Division title in the school’s trophy case, a No. 25 national ranking and a sure second straight berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Williams admits that his mindset is one of intensity and complete focus when it comes to preparing for a game and playing a game.

“I guess that’s the way I think everybody should be,” he said.

But this team, his 10th at MSU, is a different breed. They take the game seriously, but they like to have their fun, too.

“It wasn’t always like that,” senior guard Darryl Wilson said. “Coach has adjusted very well (smile). He kids around now. It’s totally different. We were loose before, but never this loose.”

Now let’s not get carried away. The new, loose Richard Williams doesn’t entertain his team by break dancing in the locker room prior to games or participate in rap sing-alongs after practices.

But still, on a loose scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being extremely loose and 1 being just plain loose, Williams is a 5 medium loose.

Nowadays, pregame shootarounds usually end with a free throw shooting contest. The losers run sprints and do pushups. The winners step back and laugh.

“It’s fun,” Williams said. “If I forget about it, the players always remind me.”

Pregame meals, usually quiet times when the uptight coach was hanging around, are now periods for laughter and upbeat conversation.

“Coach used to want things quiet during pregame meals,” Wilson said. “Now everybody laughs and talks.”

There are times, however, when Williams finds himself wanting to slip back into his old intense, no-nonsense ways. Especially when game day rolls around. But so far he’s been able to handle the urge.

“I grit my teeth and suffer through it,” he said, then smiled.

And why not? At Mississippi State they are spelling “win” this season, l-o-o-s-e.

Gene Phelps is sports editor for the Daily Journal.

Click video to hear audio