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Friday, August 12, 2011
Summer Buzz: Mississippi State Bulldogs

By Eamonn Brennan

Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Mississippi State.

Renardo Sidney stayed in school.

At a glance, this should have been a no-brainer. Since arriving at Mississippi State, Sidney has been in trouble and out of shape. He spent his entire freshman season awaiting eligibility clearance from the NCAA. Then, when he was granted that eligibility, he was forced to sit out 11 games of his sophomore year. Then, when he finally did get on the court, Sidney -- one of the most sought-after recruits in the 2009 class (at least until the NCAA started sniffing around the Sidney family's living arrangements) -- was consistently underwhelming. Also, he got in a public fight with a teammate. So, yeah, things did not go well.

Renardo Sidney
Is this the season Renardo Sidney finally lives up to his potential?
In other words: Of course Sidney should have stayed in school. But given all the bad decisions he's made in the past, and his apparent desire to get to the NBA as quickly as possible, it was a legitimate surprise to see Sidney make the prudent decision to return to school this spring.

And that's not all: Sidney has spent much of his summer working out in Houston with former NBA veteran and personal trainer John Lucas. The forward checked in with Lucas at 320 pounds earlier this summer, and last we heard, he's already lost about 25 pounds on the way to a desired playing weight of 270. Sidney has apparently been so dedicated to these workouts that he decided to skip Mississippi State's exhibition trip to Europe; he found it more worthwhile to stay in Houston and keep working out. That may not be the best move for team chemistry, but if it helps Sidney show up to campus ready to contribute in major ways to the Bulldogs, it might have been the right move after all.

However you choose to view it, one thing is certain: If the talented forward wants to live up to his hype and realize his NBA dream, he needs to contribute now. No more excuses. No more public fights. No more suspensions, no more arguments with coaches, no more weight gain, no more mess. For Mississippi State to reach its collective potential -- which could include a run at SEC contention and a spot in the NCAA tournament -- Sidney has to maximize his individual play. It's really just as simple as that.

Which is not to say there aren't other talented players in Rick Stansbury's team. Guard Dee Bost -- who famously entered the 2010 NBA draft only to return to school claiming he didn't understand the new draft withdrawal deadline -- decided to skip that noise in 2011 and come straight back to the school. Bost was one of the country's best distributors in 2011, when he posted a 38.8 percent assist rate, the 14th-highest mark in college hoops. Fellow backcourt mate Brian Bryant posted a 21.4 percent assist rate in 2011; he's back for his senior season, too. That gives the Bulldogs a solid, experienced backcourt, one that very much prefers to find teammates before looking for its own shots.

There's more good news on the way, too, as former UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie becomes eligible to play this fall. Moultrie's addition might be the most important non-Sidney factor for this team's success in 2011-12. Why? Because Moultrie defends. The last time we saw him in action -- during UTEP's impressive 2010 season -- the 6-foot-11 forward earned national ranks in block rate, steal rate, and defensive rebounding percentage. He was a major contributor to a UTEP defense that ranked No. 21 in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency (a rank that would have been even higher had that Miners team not been so frustratingly prone to foul).

If there's anything Mississippi State needs, it's defense. The Bulldogs ranked No. 170 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2011. They were good at one thing: not fouling. They were bad at everything else, particularly forcing turnovers, where they ranked No. 336 in all of Division I. Moultrie can add length, physicality and toughness, which is exactly what the Bulldogs need.

His entrance is important for another reason too: it offsets the pressure Sidney will face. Despite the disappointing performances we saw from a physically winded Sidney last season, he did use those limited minutes to flash the talent that got scouts excited about him in the first place. His advanced shooting percentages were solid. His defensive rebounding rate came in at 24.2 percent, the highest of any Bulldog. He drew about five fouls per 40 minutes. His posted a 3.4 percent block rate. There's clearly some ability here.

What Sidney hasn't had, at least thus far, is the physical stability to turn those flashes into sustainable success. Assuming he'll be able to do that this year is a fool's errand, because we heard much the same about his physical transformation last summer, and we all saw how that went.

But if he can get in shape and can stay on the floor, Moultrie's presence alongside him can be huge. Moultrie can draw the lion's share of the interior defensive responsibilities while Sidney helps on the weak side, disrupting shots and crashing the glass. It also gives him more breathing room -- literally and figuratively -- on the offensive end. Mississippi State's guards will be willing to find their big men in the paint, and having Moultrie offset Sidney in low-post possessions seems like a viable, consistent offensive strategy.

But all of it relies on Sidney. If he's the Renardo Sidney we've seen so far, then Mississippi State is a decent team with little chance of making waves in the SEC. If Sidney is what he was expected to be -- if he's even close -- the Bulldogs will be considerably more formidable. Will the real Renardo Sidney please stand up? Has he already?

We'll find out in 2011-12. Sidney's a junior now, believe it or not. If he wants to get to the NBA after all -- and make his team a contender in the process -- the time for youthful indiscretion is long since over.