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Tuesday, December 10, 2002
Austin returns in time to battle West, Xavier

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

Mississippi State junior forward and Wooden Award candidate Mario Austin was cleared by the NCAA to play Tuesday after missing the No. 22 Bulldogs' first six games of the season.

Austin will see his first action of the season Saturday when MSU travels to New York City to play No. 11 Xavier at Madison Square Garden.

Mario Austin
Mario Austin was forced to watch Mississippi State's first six games.

"He'll be back on the floor," Austin's attorney Donald Jackson told ESPN.com. "They upheld the NCAA's initial clearinghouse decision that he did do his core courses at Sumter County High School (Ala.)."

At issue was whether core classes from Austin's ninth and 10th grade transcripts should have counted when he was initially cleared to play as a freshman. The case was reopened when NCAA investigators were on campus for an unrelated matter involving football in August.

"We're very happy this situation worked out for Mario,'' Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said. "We're happy this is all behind us, and we can now move on.''

Austin was not made available for comment.

Austin was not declared ineligible by the NCAA, but was held out by Mississippi State for precautionary reasons. The Bulldogs lost their opener at home to Louisiana-Lafayette without Austin, but then won the next five on their own court.

Jackson met with NCAA officials last week in Indianapolis on behalf of Austin.

"We provided them with all the documentation with every course that he took during his four years at Sumter County," said Jackson. "There wasn't a lot of room for subjectivity."

Jackson said there were rumors as to how and why Austin's case was reopened, including "competing universities," but there was no way to confirm the reasons behind looking into Austin's high school transcripts.

"This is the end of it," Jackson said.

Austin averaged 16.1 points and 7.8 rebounds for the SEC tournament champions last season. The 6-foot-7 Austin was the primary reason for the Bulldogs being a preseason top 25 team and the prospect of his return is why they stayed in the poll without him.

Austin remained eligible at Mississippi State, even though he missed three weeks of school last April when he officially declared for the NBA draft and then left to workout with former Alabama star Rod Grizzard in Birmingham. Austin returned to school and withdrew from the draft.

It was the second time in three years that Austin had declared and withdrew, although the first time he didn't send in a letter. That was following his graduation from high school when he told ESPN.com that he would declare for the draft, but then he changed his mind before sending in a letter to the NBA. Under the old rules, Austin would have been ineligible had he declared out of high school.

Instead, Austin returns to the court for his junior and possibly last season. He's got a shot to be a first-round NBA draft pick if he can maintain the same scoring averages as his sophomore campaign.

His return is just in time for NBA scouts to get a first-hand look at how he measures up against one of the nation's best at his position when he Austin plays against Xavier senior forward David West. The Xavier-Mississippi State game is the opener of a doubleheader that also features St. John's and Hofstra.

Austin's return also means the Bulldogs will become a potential co-favorite in the SEC West with Alabama -- their most hated rivals because recruiting battles for players like Austin.

Senior power forward Michael Ignerski has picked up the scoring load in Austin's place, averaging 12 points and 6.5 rebounds through six games. He scored a team-high 17 points in a 78-38 rout of Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have also leaned more on 7-foot sophomore center Marcus Campbell, who is averaging 9.5 points and 4.3 rebounds. But Austin's presence means more touches for him and a little less pressure on Ignerski and Campbell.

Austin has been practicing throughout his suspension. Adding Austin means the Bulldogs will be even more balanced with their already improved play from guards Derrick Zimmerman (10.7 ppg) and Timmy Bowers (18.2 ppg). Mississippi State has held its last three opponents under 60 points, something the Bulldogs did defensively in five of their final six games last season.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.