By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State’s basketball locker room has nearly become a ghost town, but it’s a more pleasant place these days.
“It seems like it’s a new breath of fresh air,” shooting guard Jalen Steele said Wednesday.
The rising junior was the first Bulldog to speak with the media since the end of the a tumultuous season. MSU, at one time ranked 15th in the country, lost seven of its last nine games, including a first-round exit from the NIT.
Then the exodus began, with forwards Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney leaving early to go pro, freshman point guard DeVille Smith leaving school and, finally, Rodney Hood deciding to transfer elsewhere.
That was three starters and a potential starter in Smith, just gone. There are currently five scholarship players on the State roster, with four incoming freshmen signed to the 2012 class.
And of course there was the coaching change, with Rick Stansbury retiring after 14 seasons and Rick Ray being hired as his replacement.
“Coming in here from everything I’ve been through, it’s been quite a ride,” Steele said. “But I’m here, I’m standing strong, and I’m ready to move on to another year.”
MSU is eager to put the forgettable 2012 behind. It was a season filled with unmet expectations, player discontent and fan apathy. Steele is essentially the face of the program, by far owning the most career starts of all returnees, with 22.
Last man standing
Ray plans to sign another point guard – P.J. Hardwick was a fall signee, and no point guards return – and that’s a role Steele may have to fill on occasion.
The sharp-shooter – he made 39.3 percent of his 3-point shots last season – will definitely be handling the ball more often and bringing it up court against the press.
And he’ll have to be a leader. So will forward Wendell Lewis, a rising senior with some starting experience.
“I just told Wendell, I said, ‘Man, look, we’ve got to go out here and work two times harder than we ever did in our whole entire life,’” Steele said. “We’ve got to do that just to keep the team in shape, keep us in shape, and also bring the new players in and help them out, and then to help us out, and we help each other out.”
Steele and Ray have talked a lot about what the team can expect from the coach, and vice versa. Steele called the workouts Ray has been putting the team through “crazy” and thinks they’ll pay off down the line.
There were rumors recently of Steele and Lewis possibly transferring, but Steele dismissed such talk. The Knoxville, Tenn., native is not just embracing this fresh start, he’s tackling it with gusto.
“Now it’s our time, everybody that’s still here. So we’ve got to come up and show people that we can play also and that we can prove everybody wrong and win games next year.”