By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – As Mississippi State’s lead over Centenary steadily expanded in the second half of Tuesday’s game, crossing the line from blowout to laugher, a surprising number of fans remained planted in their seats.
Maybe it was because, this game being in Jackson, it was the only chance many fans would have to watch the Bulldogs in person this season. It just as likely had to do with the 7-foot-1 curiosity lumbering up and down the Mississippi Coliseum floor.
The 5,502 folks in attendance were the first to get a good look at John Riek, the 20-year-old freshman whose odyssey from the Sudan to Starkville has been well-documented. After serving a nine-game NCAA-mandated suspension at the beginning of this season – for accepting improper monetary benefits while in prep school – Riek finally saw the floor last week against Wright State.
For all of 27.5 seconds. That doesn’t even qualify as a glimpse.
But with garbage time beginning early in the second half of Tuesday’s game – MSU won, 88-51 – coach Rick Stansbury saw fit to send Riek into the game. When the crowd realized he was checking in, the cheers began, and they continued every time Riek did something – anything.
This debut was not a thing of beauty. Riek’s first field goal as a collegian was an awkward-looking two-hander that he banked in from close range. The fans didn’t care; they went nuts.
Then, with just over two minutes to go, Riek grabbed an offensive rebound and slammed home the putback.
“When he got the big dunk, it surprised me,” senior guard Barry Stewart said. “If you’d been at practice the other day, you’d know why.”
That’s been a tricky thing for Stansbury, getting Riek good reps in practice. While he sat through the suspension, most of those reps naturally went to senior center Jarvis Varnado and his backup, freshman Wendell Lewis.
“We had to play games with Wendell; we didn’t have John,” Stansbury said.
So it’s tough for Riek to not stand out, and not just because he’s so tall and weighs 250 pounds. Finding his place on a team that’s been humming along the last four weeks is, quite simply put, difficult.
For the time being, Stansbury can’t see putting Riek into a game that hasn’t already been decided. Garbage time minutes will be his only minutes.
“We’ll see how we can fit him in, where we can fit him in at. If he becomes (a key contributor) this season, I don’t know that, I don’t know yet,” Stansbury said. “You can’t go into a tight game and have two or three mistakes in a row that’ll cost you.”
Riek, who finished with six points and seven rebounds in eight minutes of work, also committed three turnovers. On another occasion, he came flying down the floor on defense and somersaulted over an opposing player’s back before landing hard on the floor.
The crowd groaned, then cheered when Riek hopped up unscathed. And for now, that’s what Riek will be – one of the guys off the end of the bench, like Taylor Luczak and Baxter Price and Charles Parker, who draw huge ovations for doing things that have no impact on the final outcome.
Someday, Stansbury believes, that will change for Riek.
“Big John in time is going to become a very good player, because he’s a tremendous worker,” he said. “And he’s got something you can’t teach – he’s got just size. He’s a monster.”
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.