BIRMINGHAM – One of Rick Stansbury’s favorite phrases could become a popular saying among the SEC’s coaches this season: “There’s no substitute for experience.”
Five of the league’s 12 teams list five returning starters for this season, a shocking number in this age of “one-and-dones,” when freshmen often find themselves at center stage. Stansbury’s Mississippi State squad is one of those veteran-laden teams, and for him, it’s an uncommon circumstance.
“It’s probably the most experienced team I’ve had in a long time,” Stansbury said during Thursday’s SEC media day event. “We have some continuity and some chemistry, and that’s kind of unusual for us. There’s no question it helps in every way.”
That experience is a big reason the defending SEC Tournament champion is favored to win the Western Division title this season. The Bulldogs, 23-13 a year ago, have a strong freshman group that’s expected to contribute.
Stansbury, who’s entering his 12th season at the helm in Starkville, just doesn’t have to lean on them too heavily, unlike last year, when Dee Bost ran the point and Romero Osby gave key minutes off the bench as freshmen.
“Everybody’s more experienced and comfortable and knows what they’re going to do this year,” said center Jarvis Varnado, one of two seniors for this year’s Bulldogs.
The other senior is guard Barry Stewart. While Varnado is a a shot-blocking machine with an ever-expanding offensive repertoire, Stewart is the one that holds the group together.
“When Barry talks, everybody listens,” Varnado said. “He’s just a glue guy. If you need Barry to go stop a play, he’s going to stop them. If you need Barry to go score, he’s going to score.”
Stansbury said that preseason workouts, which began Oct. 16, are far different this year than last, when Varnado and Stewart were the only returning starters from a team that won the West and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament.
By December of last year, Stansbury was already tweaking his lineup, searching for the right combination of players. He kept tweaking right up to the SEC Tournament, when State made an unexpected run to the title to earn its 10th trip to the NCAAs.
“Rick did a phenomenal job,” said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, whose Volunteers lost to the Bulldogs in the SEC title game after beating them in the regular season. “He had plenty of pieces to the puzzle, but the pieces kept on changing. They obviously got to playing some of their best basketball at the end of the season.”
Now the goal is to carry that momentum over into this season, which begins Nov. 13 against Rider at Humphrey Coliseum. The outside expectations are hard for MSU to ignore, but another one of Stansbury’s old stand-by adages is keeping an even keel no matter the predictions.
“We’re going to prepare the same way every day, every year, no matter where you guys pick us,” he said. “It’s all the same.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or email@example.com
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal