Bulldogs' outlook is bright

PORTLAND, Ore. – Brian Johnson still wants to be a part of it.

After Mississippi State’s 71-58 loss to Washington here Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the injury-plagued Johnson said he was seeking an extra year of eligibility, and it’s easy to see why. The 2008-09 Bulldogs defied the odds, riding a young lineup bereft of size to a third-place finish in the SEC Western Division, an SEC Tournament title and the NCAA berth.

“How many teams can say they do that with two freshman point guards? They’ve got a lot to learn, but when they do, they’re going to be something special,” Johnson said.

The point guard position is the cornerstone of MSU’s future. Dee Bost, with a year of prep school under his belt, quickly grew into a role he’d never held before – he used to be a shooting guard – to earn SEC all-freshman honors, and he was backed up by the less-polished but promising Twany Beckham.

Bost flashed the scoring ability that brought him praise in high school, averaging 10.9 points per game, and also became a solid distributor of the ball (4.3 assists per game). His major weakness early on was defense, but he was forced to improve drastically having to face guys like Arkansas’ Courtney Fortson, LSU’s Bo Spencer and SEC Freshman of the Year Terrico White of Ole Miss.

“I think he’s done a tremendous job of making that adjustment for his team,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said prior to the tournament.

Even better news for State is that its other four starters are returning, and two of them will be seniors: two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Varnado at center, and Barry Stewart at shooting guard.

Johnson was the only senior to make it on the floor this season, and that was off the bench thanks to an ankle/foot injury. Having two senior leaders on the floor – three if Johnson gets his wish and re-enters the starting lineup – will itself make MSU a frontrunner in the West.

“When you look on paper compared to last year, what we had coming back, is absolutely a lot of unknowns coming back this last year,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. “This next season there’s not a lot of unknowns.”

One of the few unknowns is if the Bulldogs can bulk up. The 6-foot-9 Varnado, at 210 pounds, is the only starter who’s listed heavier than 175. Stansbury expects guys like Ravern Johnson (6-7, 175) and Bost (6-2, 170) to get bigger and stronger.

Everything about the offseason will be crucial for State.

“Like I told our guys, take this feeling right now, carry it from March to October. That’s when games are won, March to October,” Stansbury said.

A deep bench also returns, and Shaunessy Smith, a four-star wing player from Noxubee County, will only add to that.

Finishing 23-13, making an unexpected postseason run, so many parts returning -it should be plenty of motivation for MSU to improve and go even farther next season.

“This was a great experience for some of the younger guys to understand what it takes to be an elite team in this league,” sophomore guard Phil Turner said. “And so I feel like we’re going to be a pretty good team just from this experience.”

 

Brad Locke/Daily Journal