Nationally ranked Bulldogs tip season with high expectations

STARKVILLE – Rick Stansbury has never put much stock in preseason rankings and such, but he can empathize with those whose job it is to forecast a basketball team’s fortunes.
Stansbury’s Mississippi State squad, which opens the 2009-10 season at 8 tonight against Rider at Humphrey Coliseum, is all over the map in the preseason rankings. It’s ranked No. 18 in the country by the Associated Press, No. 19 by USA Today, the two most recognized polls.
The Sporting News has the Bulldogs No. 10, while the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook does not have them in its top 25.
A big reason for the uncertainty is the Renardo Sidney saga. Until the NCAA affirms the 6-foot-10 freshman’s amateur status – if it ever does – not everyone considers MSU top-25 caliber.
Other questions abound, too. Key reserves Twany Beckham and Riley Benock are injured – Beckham’s out for the year; Benock is limited – and that raises depth concerns in the backcourt.
While senior center Jarvis Varnado is a force on both ends of the floor, he’ll need some reliable help, which is where Sidney would be so valuable. John Riek, a 7-1 freshman, is out the first nine games per an NCAA suspension, and junior Elgin Bailey is still hurt.
The prognosticators aren’t the only ones unsure what to make of these Bulldogs. Stansbury, who enters his 12th season as head coach, can’t get a bead on them either.
“There’s a lot of things we don’t have figured out yet,” Stansbury said. “We’ve got to figure out who those guys are we have off that bench that we can put into a role. That hasn’t been close to being settled.”
Even with the injuries, the bench should be a strong point, with Osby, former starter Phil Turner, and freshmen Wendell Lewis and Shaun Smith all expected to log key minutes.
The starting five shouldn’t be an issue. Tonight’s lineup has sophomore Dee Bost at point guard, senior Barry Stewart at the two spot, sharp-shooting junior Ravern Johnson at the three, junior Kodi Augustus at forward and Varnado in his usual spot. All but Augustus were regular starters during last year’s 23-13 campaign.
All five of those players had big moments and big games when MSU unexpectedly won the SEC Tournament last season.
That strong finish and all the returning talent – only reserve Brian Johnson graduated – is the reason for the Bulldogs’ own high expectations, never mind those of outside observers.
“We’re a more mature group as a team,” Bost said. “I feel like we’re more comfortable as a team.”
Rider head coach Tommy Dempsey said he can’t find a hole in the Bulldogs’ lineup.

‘No weaknesses’
“They spread the court, everybody shoots it. You have a dominant post player. There’s really no weaknesses one through eight as far as I can tell,” Dempsey said.
Like State, the visiting Broncs are hoping for great things this season. Entering his fourth season at the helm, Dempsey has transformed Rider from an eight-win team the year prior to his arrival to a squad that should challenge Siena and Niagara for supremacy in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
The Broncs, from Lawrenceville, N.J., went 19-13 last season and finished third in the MAAC. They lost in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
Stansbury said this will be one of the toughest home openers MSU has had in a while.
“We may not be as big as them inside, but we’ll start four guys 6-6 or better,” Dempsey said. “We do have pretty big, physical guards, and we have a guy that should be as good as anybody they have.”
That guy is senior point guard Ryan Thompson, who averaged 18.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game last season.
Thompson and the Broncs should provide MSU with a stiff challenge tonight, and maybe once it’s over, Stansbury and everyone else will have a little better idea just what to make of these Bulldogs.

Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com.

Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal