Category archive: Mississippi State Bulldogs

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Mississippi State was featured in two headlines on ESPN.com's college basketball page as of Thursday morning.

Neither was good for the upcoming season, especially for new head coach Rick Ray who is starting from scratch after Rick Stansbury "retired" after 14 seasons.

Stansbury had plenty of player movement during his tenure, including a high-turnover roster and a slew of players who went to the NBA, sometimes before they even arrived in Starkville under the previous NBA draft rule. But one thing Stansbury continued to do, in what's arguably one of the toughest recruiting spots in the SEC, was win.

He reached six NCAA tournaments and claimed five SEC West divisional titles. But he left a roster that imploded upon his departure.

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Rick Ray
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisReplacing numerous key players will be just one of the challenges that awaits Rick Ray in his first season at Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs lost two seniors (Dee Bost and Brian Bryant) and two players who left a year early for the NBA draft. Arnett Moultrie, a four-year player after transferring from UTEP, was an expected departure. Moultrie was selected in the first round (27th overall) by Miami and traded to Philadelphia. He was a double-double machine for the Bulldogs at times. Renardo Sidney wasn't selected and probably would have been a headache for Ray had he stayed in school. Sidney consistently failed to get in shape, stay eligible and remain interested on the court.

The best player on the team was freshman guard Rodney Hood. Ray, a relatively unknown assistant from Clemson when he was hired, thought he had a chance to keep Hood when he got the job.

It didn't happen.

Once Hood said he was looking for another school, he became a coveted transfer who seriously considered Duke, Ohio State, Baylor and Memphis. He chose Duke.

"It was 50-50,'' Ray said.

How much time did Ray spend trying to woo Hood? "A lot,'' Ray said. "And you can't get that time back. I thought it was a really good chance. I wanted Rodney to get a chance to see what we could do on the court. But I was 0-0 and didn't have a coaching record, and the places he was considering transferring to, those places had records.''

So, Ray had to find guards with the loss of Bost, Bryant and Hood. He ultimately found five newcomers at the position in Andre Applewhite, Trivante Bloodman, Fred Thomas, Jacoby Davis and Craig Sword to go along with one junior college forward in Colin Borchert. The Bulldogs, hoping for some semblance of experience on the roster, held onto Jalen Steele, a 3-point shooter, and forward Wendell Lewis.

"We had nobody who could dribble the ball up the court,'' Ray said. "Nobody. I wanted to make sure we weren't mortgaging our future to plug holes so that now you don't have quality guys who can compete in the SEC. You walk a fine line if you're able to find guys who can come in and win games who are also good kids.''

Now back to the headlines on our college hoops page. Davis suffered a torn ACL during individual workouts on Monday and is out for the year.

Sword had a BB gun in his dorm room and didn't know that wasn't allowed, according to the school. He was subsequently arrested in what was deemed a misdemeanor. Ray issued a statement to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and others. Some sort of disciplinary action is pending. But Ray will need Sword this season.

He has to patient and so does the fan base.

"All the media attention that comes with being an assistant coach, I never had to deal with that,'' said Ray. "Nobody cares about you or wants to talk to you. I had to deal with all that media attention.''

Ray wasn't the first choice, either. He knew that, and so did the boosters. "There were boosters and donors [who] I had to introduce myself to, especially those [who] wanted this candidate or that candidate, guys who didn't feel quite connected to the process who wanted someone else to be the head coach,'' said Ray.

How many times did he have to make those introductions?

"A lot,'' said Ray. "People in the South like to talk. But it was good.''

Ray is personable once you spend time with him. He has an infectious smile and an engaging personality. But he wasn't one of these self-promoting assistants. And while Clemson head coach Brad Brownell is loyal, he isn't a coach who draws attention to himself or shines the light on his assistants to get jobs. Ray wasn't the visible assistant at his previous spots (Purdue, Northern Illinois or Indiana State), either.

Athletic director Scott Stricklin had to find a coach who was long on character and discipline after Stansbury's final two seasons had its share of issues, notably when former player Elgin Bailey was involved in a fight in the stands with Sidney.

"I had to get guys to buy into what I was selling,'' said Ray. "I wasn't a name. The only way I could get them to buy in was to get them on the court and work with them. That was good, and we've had two weeks with them on the court that has been really good.''

Ray also had to tackle a problem he wasn't anticipating: altering the schedule.

Stansbury seemed to love putting his teams in difficult situations on the road. The team and program nearly imploded after a ridiculous road swing two seasons ago that took them to the Bahamas to Hawaii to Las Vegas in two weeks.

The Bulldogs were originally slated to play at Utah State on the way to the Maui Invitational. On the way back from Hawaii, they would visit Baylor. Oh, and the Bulldogs had to open the season in Troy's new facility.

"We still have to open up at Troy,'' said Ray. "But I pushed back the Utah State trip to the next year, and we got out of the series with Baylor. I didn't want to deprive our guys the chance to play in Maui.''

The depleted Bulldogs open up that tournament against North Carolina, which reloaded yet again.

"We'll still field a team,'' Ray said.

For Ray's sake, he hopes that he can slide back into anonymity while he rebuilds. And it would be nice to do it without any negative headlines.

College basketball could use a Heisman-like award, one main honor instead of the five mainstream national awards.

The problem is that finding a consensus for the Wooden, Naismith, AP, Rupp and Oscar Robertson honors is no easy task.

The awards voters do tend to coalesce behind one candidate. And maybe that will be the case again.

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Harrison Barnes
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesA favorite in the preseason, Harrison Barnes hasn't been the dominating player for UNC.

But it seems that this season's race will be as wide open as ever. If you need more evidence, take a look at the 25 finalists for the Wooden Award, released on ESPNU and ESPN.com on Tuesday.

It appears that the only two players who are consensus candidates are Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Creighton's Doug McDermott. It's not a reach to say these two players are the favorites in mid-January, a stunning development considering how much preseason hype Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes received. The amazing part thus far is that I don't believe Sullinger nor Barnes would be a first-team All-American if the voting were conducted today.

Before we get to the list of players compiled by the Wooden folks, it's important to note that these are simply the 25 players who they felt should be honored on their midseason list. Players who do not show up are still very much eligible to win the Wooden Award at the end of the season and will be given equal consideration.

So players who have legitimate claims to being on this list -- Maryland's Terrell Stoglin and Seton Hall teammates Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore come to mind -- still have a shot.

So without further ado, here are the 25 Wooden finalists (in alphabetical order):

Harrison Barnes, 6-foot-8, So., F, North Carolina
Stat line: 16.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg

Chances: Fading. Still has a shot to be a second-team All-American. Barnes hasn't been the dominating player on the Tar Heels. To be fair, he has some of the best talent in the country (John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall) surrounding him. UNC's 33-point loss to Florida State didn't help his case, either.

Will Barton, 6-6, So., F, Memphis
Stat line: 18.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg

Chances: No shot. He could be the Conference USA Player of the Year, though. Barton has greatly improved and has been the most consistent player during the Tigers' inconsistent season.

William Buford, 6-6, Sr., G, Ohio State
Stat line: 15.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg

Chances: No shot. Buford won't win Big Ten POY, either. He has been OSU's best perimeter threat, but he won't be a first-team All-American. Buford might not even be first-team All-Big Ten. He is an integral part of the Buckeyes' title hopes, but is not a POY contender.

Anthony Davis, 6-10, Fr., C, Kentucky
Stat line: 13.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.6 bpg

Chances: High. Davis has been the most dominant post player in the country. He blocked a last-second shot by North Carolina's John Henson in December, preventing the Tar Heels from winning a game at Rupp. He alters and changes more shots than any other player. If the Wildcats win the national title, Davis will be one of the reasons why. He would be ahead of Ohio State's Jared Sullinger on the All-America ballot if you had to choose one of them.

Marcus Denmon, 6-3, Sr., G, Missouri
Stat line: 17.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg

Chances: Not great. Denmon is the leading scorer for Mizzou. But it's hard to separate him from Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe, Michael Dixon and Flip Pressey in his importance to the Tigers. They all have played an equal role in Missouri's impressive start. It will be interesting to see which of these players earns first-team All-Big 12.

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Green
Mike Carter/US PresswireIf Michigan State stays in the Big Ten race, Draymond Green has a shot at first-team All-American.

Draymond Green, 6-7, Sr., F, Michigan State
Stat line: 15.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg

Chances: In the mix. If he continues his current pace of scoring and rebounding, Green could end up nudging out Sullinger for Big Ten Player of the Year. The Spartans did lose at Northwestern on Saturday, but Green has been a tremendous leader. He will stay in the chase for a first-team All-American spot if his team stays in the race for the Big Ten title.

John Henson, 6-11, Jr., C, North Carolina
Stat line: 14.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg

Chances: No shot. Henson didn't convert the biggest shot of his season against Kentucky. Davis blocked it. And if Barnes isn't the national player of the year, Henson isn't either. The 33-point loss to Florida State will haunt all Tar Heels candidates.

John Jenkins, 6-4, Jr., G, Vanderbilt
Stat line: 19.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg

Chances: No shot. Jenkins is a superb shooter and scorer and is leading the revitalized Commodores. But his role isn't more important than Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley or Festus Ezeli -- it is equally important. The 'Dores mid-nonconference slide hurts Jenkins' campaign. The success of the Kentucky freshmen also makes it almost impossible for Jenkins to get SEC Player of the Year.

Orlando Johnson, 6-5, Sr., G, UCSB
Stat line: 20.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg

Chances: No shot. Johnson is having a stellar season for the Gauchos, and he may be one of the higher draft picks on this list. But the Gauchos are 8-6 and are trailing Long Beach State in the Big West. Johnson should be an All-American, but he won't make the first team.

Darius Johnson-Odom, 6-2, Sr., G, Marquette
Stat line: 18.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg

Chances: No shot. DJO has had a superb season for the Golden Eagles. He has a legit shot at Big East Player of the Year. But that won't be enough to get a first-team All-American spot or the national POY. Marquette has been decent, but not great enough for DJO to stand out on that pedestal.

Kevin Jones, 6-8, Sr., F, West Virginia
Stat line: 20.6 ppg, 11.1 rpg

Chances: Decent. Jones has put it all together as a senior and has put up just a monster season for the Mountaineers. Just seems like it's double-double after double-double for Jones, who will need to keep the Mountaineers in the top 3 of the Big East in order to stay in Wooden contention.

Perry Jones III, 6-11, So., C, Baylor
Stat line: 14.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg

Chances: No shot at player of the year, but he is in the hunt for a first-team All-American slot. The problem for Jones' candidacy is that Quincy Acy has been a comparable inside scorer and guard Pierre Jackson has been an integral member of this team. Jones didn't help his case when he and the Bears were dominated by Kansas' Thomas Robinson in a loss on Monday night. But he can't win national POY if he isn't the Big 12 Player of the Year. And Robinson is the favorite for that honor.

Kris Joseph, 6-7, Sr., F, Syracuse
Stat line: 13.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg

Chances: No shot. Joseph is leading the Orange, but this team is so deep, so talented and so balanced that you would have a hard time picking just him. Dion Waiters may be Syracuse's MVP. A number of other players have taken turns being the star for the Orange, too.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 6-7, Fr., F, Kentucky
Stat line: 13.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 49.4 FG percentage

Chances: Solid. Kidd-Gilchrist could be the SEC Player of the Year. And if he gets that honor, he'll be in contention for the national POY. Kidd-Gilchrist took a few games to get going, but once he did he was an offensive force. He has delivered on his talent and effort.

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Doug McDermott
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireCreighton's Doug McDermott has been one of the most complete players in the nation.

Jeremy Lamb, 6-5, So., G, Connecticut
Stat line: 17.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg

Chances: No shot. Lamb is leading the Huskies in scoring. But UConn is still finding its way in the Big East. The Huskies haven't featured Lamb as much, either. Andre Drummond may end up being the team's featured scorer by season's end. Lamb isn't the Big East Player of the Year right now, so he isn't winning the national honor.

Damian Lillard, 6-3, Jr., G, Weber State
Stat line: 25.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.5 apg

Chances: He won't win national POY, but he should be in contention for second-team All-American honors. Lillard is having a stellar season for the Wildcats, who are in first place in the Big Sky. He leads the nation in scoring and his stat line is as good as any in the country. The problem is that Weber has been in obscurity so far this season. Lillard will likely not be seen by the masses until March.

Doug McDermott, 6-7, So., F, Creighton
Stat line: 24.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 62.1 FG

Chances: High. McDermott has been one of the most complete players in the country and is a first-team All-American, at the very least. He could be this season's Jimmer Fredette, coming from outside a power six conference to win the national player of the year honor. McDermott has led the Bluejays to the top of the Missouri Valley and into the Top 25. He is the focus of every opposing defense, too.

Scott Machado, 6-1, Sr., G, Iona
Stat line: 13.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 10.3 apg

Chances: Not happening for POY, but he's in the hunt as a first-team All-American. Machado has been the most dominant point guard this season and easily leads the country in assists. Iona has played a decent schedule and is the team to beat in the MAAC. Few teams will want to face the Gaels in March, and Machado is one of the key reasons why.

Kendall Marshall, 6-4, So., G, North Carolina
Stat line: 5.8 ppg, 9.6 apg

Chances: No shot. Marshall is a key for the Tar Heels. He hasn't been the best point guard in the country, but has been a solid contributor this season and does rank second behind Machado in assists. But that isn't enough to win the award or be a first-team candidate.

Mike Moser, 6-8, So., F, UNLV
Stat line: 13.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg

Chances: No shot. But Moser has to be in contention for a first- or second-team All-American spot. His rebounding has been epic (especially against North Carolina). Moser and fellow UCLA transfer Chace Stanback have been the major reasons the Runnin' Rebels are ranked and in contention for the MWC title.

Arnett Moultrie, 6-11, Jr., C, Mississippi State
Stat line: 16.5 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 0.9 bpg

Chances: Not good for POY, but he's a serious candidate for first-team All-American. Outside of Moser, Moultrie has had the most impact of any transfer. He has increased MSU's chances of being a serious threat to Kentucky in the SEC. Moultrie is a double-double machine for coach Rick Stansbury and has allowed the Bulldogs to avoid relying only on Renardo Sidney.

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Thomas Robinson
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireBaylor's focus in its rematch with Kansas -- stopping Thomas Robinson, who had 27 points and 14 rebounds in their game in January.

Thomas Robinson, 6-9, Jr., F, Kansas
Stat line: 17.8 ppg, 12.3 rpg

Chances: High. Robinson is the POY favorite at this juncture. He should be a consensus first-team All-American. He has had to take on immense responsibility with the departure of the Morris twins and has responded without a hitch. He carries the weight of the incredible burden of losing his mother during last season. And yet he is as focused as ever in 2011-12. Robinson dominated in the rout over Baylor on Monday night with 27 points and 14 rebounds.

Mike Scott, 6-8, Sr., F, Virginia
Stat line: 16.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg

Chances: He has no shot for national POY, but Scott is one of the favorites for ACC Player of the Year. He has been the most consistent big man in the league. Take Scott off the Cavs, and they don't come close to the top of the league standings. But Virginia did lose at Duke and also fell to TCU. Scott will have to keep the Cavs in the ACC's top three to have a chance at the league's POY.

Jared Sullinger, 6-9, So., F, Ohio State
Stat line: 17.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg

Chances: Still strong. Sullinger has been battling injuries (back, foot) and missed the road game at Kansas in December. That's part of the reason he is not the favorite right now. Sullinger still has plenty of time to be a first-team All-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year. But it would help if he had some dominating performances down the stretch.

Cody Zeller, 6-11, Fr., C, Indiana
Stat line: 14.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.4 bpg

Chances: No shot. But Zeller is in the chase for Big Ten Player of the Year. At the very least, he'll be the Big Ten Rookie of the Year. It's amazing that he's on this list and his older brother Tyler (a senior at North Carolina) is not. Cody has helped transform Indiana into a national player, but the Hoosiers' recent two-game skid does take his chances for Big Ten POY down a peg.

My midseason All-America team choices:
First team: Robinson, McDermott, Davis, Moultrie, Machado
Second team: Kidd-Gilchrist, Sullinger, Green, K. Jones, C. Zeller

The past three weeks have been quite a whirlwind.

I've seen 20 teams in a number of venues on both coasts.

So after a thankful day to be with my family -- and a big thanks to all my tremendous colleagues who grind every day on our editorial operation on ESPN.com and on both sides of the camera on ESPN -- here's a look at what I've picked up on after two weeks on the road. And remember, this only includes games I've seen in person.

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Michigan State vs North Carolina
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillIt doesn't get much more scenic than what we witnessed at the Carrier Classic.

Best venue: It was natural to be skeptical about whether or not the Carrier Classic could be pulled off. But it far exceeded my expectations. The Navy did what it does best -- tremendous organization. The enormity of the USS Carl Vinson was awe-inspiring. The men and women who serve on the ship, as well as the ship's leadership, couldn't have been more welcoming. They were so grateful to have a chance to show what they do on a daily basis. The two teams -- North Carolina and Michigan State -- were model guests and displayed tremendous appreciation. The pageantry of the event, from the patriotic opening to the scenic view of downtown San Diego, will be hard to ever duplicate due to the uniqueness of 11-11-11 and the inaugural nature of the game. And the outdoor game may have seemed like a gimmick, but it was well-played in spurts for being the season opener for both teams.

Best team: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have lived up to the hype as the No. 1 team in the country. They have flaws, especially their perimeter depth. But the overall length of the frontcourt, the ability to get out on the break and the potential to hit scoring spurts and run out on teams is impressive. The Heels have three players -- Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall -- who will compete for the ACC POY and two others -- John Henson and James Michael McAdoo -- who will be tough to defend.

Signature moment: When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski won game No. 903 against Michigan State, passed his mentor Bob Knight and became the all-time winningest men's coach in NCAA history. The impromptu embrace by Coach K and Knight was met by a swarm of photographers and a rare teary eye from Coach K. The moment was genuine, real and showed the true emotion of such an arduous task of grinding out wins in this sport for three-plus decades.

Most impressive half: Kentucky's complete domination of Penn State in the first half at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The Wildcats made it look like it was a guarantee game with an opponent from a weak Division II conference. To Penn State's credit, the Nittany Lions did respond the next day and beat South Florida. But Kentucky showed on this day that it had more offensive versatility with the emergence of Doron Lamb and Kyle Wiltjer.

Most dominating performance: Jared Cunningham, Oregon State. Cunningham went off for 37 points in an overtime win over Texas in the Legends Classic. Cunningham was a highlight reel a year ago but has settled down, working on his game and finding ways to score in a variety of ways. Hofstra coach Mo Cassara said he was the best guard they've gone against in quite some time after Cunningham lit up the Pride for 35 in Corvallis prior to the Texas game. Cunningham is a legit Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate.

Best sub: Syracuse's Dion Waiters. Waiters jump-started the Orange with 11 points off the bench in the comeback win over Virginia Tech in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal. Waiters is a game-changer when he's on the floor. He gives Syracuse a different look because of his ability to get into the lane quicker than Scoop Jardine. He's not as refined as Jardine and can be hit or miss, but when he's on he gives the Orange a different look.

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Billy Kennedy
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M's Billy Kennedy was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease before the start of the season.

Most courageous: Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy and St. John's coach Steve Lavin. Kennedy is trying to come back from a series of health setbacks, most notably being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He went through incredible fatigue over a five-week stretch that weakened him and it doesn't help that he has bone spurs in his shoulder. The first-year A&M coach is beat up, but is making a comeback one step at a time. He's an inspiration and a model of perseverance.

Lavin, meanwhile, is returning from prostate cancer surgery that was more extensive than most. He had a seven-hour procedure to take out his prostate and also scrape other lymph nodes to ensure that the cancer was all gone. He said he is cancer-free, but is still working his way back from the exhausting surgery. Lavin has to manage his energy and that's why he was able to coach in the Garden for two days in a row but then needed to take a day off from the rigors of coaching earlier this week.

Biggest surprise: Stanford's blowout win over Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were obviously a bit distracted on Wednesday. Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, who has been crushed by the horrific plane crash that cost the lives of women's coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, said there were no excuses. And there is this: Stanford was that good. Josh Owens scored 21 points and is, like Cunningham, a Pac-12 POY candidate. I'm not sure Stanford can continue this early-season success, but the Cardinal certainly have the look of an upper-division Pac-12 team.

Two to single out: Over the past three weeks, I took notice of two players who continue to exhibit maturity and professionalism in the way they handle themselves with the media and the respect they have for those older than them. Texas freshman Myck Kabongo has a tremendous presence about him. So too does Michigan State senior Draymond Green. You sense that both of these young men will be stars in whatever they choose to do going forward.

Player only scratching the surface: Kentucky's Anthony Davis will be a star by season's end with his ability to control the paint. He is such an immense talent with his length and game-changing shot-blocking. His offense will only continue to diversify.

Most important wins: Vanderbilt beating NC State and Oregon State in the closing moments. The Commodores found ways to win the Legends Classic with key defensive stops and timely shooting at the IZOD Center. The Wolfpack and Beavers are vastly improved from a year ago, but the Dores had to win these games to shed the sour taste of getting beat up by Cleveland State at home. Vandy will get big man Festus Ezeli back in a few weeks. So these wins were critical for this team's confidence.

Two teams to watch: Oregon State still has to win the games it should over the next month -- all against teams outside the power-six conferences and perhaps none against teams bound for the NCAA tournament. But the talent is in place with this team to make some noise in the Pac-12. The emergence of Ahmad Starks as a push-it point guard, the length of Eric Moreland and Devon Collier, the soft hands of Joe Burton inside and the scoring of Cunningham make this team a good watch.

NC State had talent when Mark Gottfried arrived and it has only gotten better. C.J. Leslie is a potential big-time scorer. Scott Wood can make shots. C.J. Williams and Alex Johnson are solid role players. DeShawn Painter is a rugged face-up and inside post player and the potential exists for Thomas de Thaey and Jordan Vandenberg to cause problems when they body people up in the lane. The ACC is weak beyond the top three, opening up a spot for the Wolfpack.

The great enigma: Mississippi State. After dropping a home game to Akron, the Bulldogs won the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer with wins over Texas A&M and Arizona. Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney provide one of the tougher matchups of any big man combo. Dee Bost is a veteran point guard who knows how to run a team. But the two players who may hold the key to this team are Deville Smith and Rodney Hood, a pair of freshman guards who can change the game with their speed and shooting when inserted.

Incomplete read: Drexel. The Dragons were without two of their top three guards in Chris Fouch and Tavon Allen. Yet Drexel pulled away from Rider in impressive fashion during the Tip-Off Marathon. The CAA favorite has a tough inside, undersized player in Samme Givens and a grinding guard who can get points in Frantz Massenat. But then the Dragons fell flat in the Virgin Islands and lost to Norfolk State and scored 35 points against Virginia. Let's see how Drexel does once it's healthy before giving a full review.

Best coaching jobs: Kansas' Bill Self and Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg. Neither team won when I saw them but they were going up against top-five squads in Kentucky and Syracuse. Self and Greenberg are maximizing the talent on their teams. They do have studs in Thomas Robinson (Kansas) and Dorenzo Hudson (Virginia Tech), but they get their teams to play as hard as they coach. Kansas' play in Maui deserves high praise and the Jayhawks will once again be in contention to win the Big 12. The Hokies will find a way to be on the bubble again. Neither team is as stocked as it has been in the past, but these two coaches will get these teams to reach their potential.

Best teams: Nothing I saw changed my opinion that North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse are all legitimate Final Four contenders. I have yet to see Ohio State, but put the Buckeyes in that group, as well.

Best game I missed: Well, that one is easy. The Kansas-Duke championship game at the Maui Invitational will go down as one of the best 40 minutes of the regular season. What a show that was.

NEW YORK -- Rick Stansbury is facing the toughest coaching challenge of his career.

What should he do with Renardo Sidney?

And this time, Sidney's problems apparently aren't related to his behavior.

At issue is how to deal with a player who has so much talent and so much potential, yet continues to be an enigma.

This time, the issue is whether or not Mississippi State can afford to wait for Sidney to be in the shape the Bulldogs needs him to be, allowing him to play quicker at both ends of the court.

"He still has a ways to go,'' Stansbury said. "He's taking baby steps. So far, as in his life itself, has been better. He hasn't disrupted in practice. He's been a good teammate. That part of his life is a lot better. He continues to push himself. But he's got to push himself to get in shape and play more productive minutes. That's his challenge.''

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Renardo Sidney
Spruce Derden/US PresswireMississippi State's season will come down to how Renardo Sidney performs on -- and off -- the court.

Sidney missed Saturday's win over South Alabama with a groin injury.

"That's true,'' Stansbury said. "He really did.''

Stansbury said that Sidney will play Thursday night against Texas A&M in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. The winner of this game will meet the winner of Arizona-St. John's on Friday, with the losers matching up earlier in a consolation game.

Stansbury's grand plan was for the Bulldogs to have as formidable a front line as any in the SEC, maybe even any in the country. He envisioned a group that could challenge Kentucky's Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist once Sidney joined UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie. But that hasn't worked out according to plan.

Sidney didn't make the Bulldogs' trip to Europe in August, choosing instead to spend the summer working out with former NBA coach and player John Lucas. Lucas specializes in taking on dysfunctional cases and rehabbing them, whether it's from substance abuse, behavioral problems or simply getting into optimum conditioning.

Sidney's problems have been many. He didn't play as a freshman as the NCAA investigated his housing situation in Los Angeles when he moved from Mississippi to Southern California. He once committed to USC. He was essentially spurned by UCLA because he was deemed too high a risk. Stansbury jumped at the chance to get Sidney on the rebound when the USC situation imploded on him. And because of his size and strength -- he's listed at 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds -- Sidney is deemed too much of a potential talent to dismiss.

Sidney's family hired a lawyer, noted NCAA thorn Don Jackson from Alabama, and the case lasted for months. Sidney ultimately was suspended for the year and into the next season's first nine games. When Sidney was finally eligible, he got into a tussle in a practice that warranted a one-game suspension, then was involved in a nationally televised fight in the stands at Hawaii that cost him again.

He remained on the team. The other participant in the sparring session -- Elgin Bailey -- "asked" to transfer after the incident. Stansbury said at the time that the fight was over Bailey's not moving his feet as Sidney tried to exit the aisle at the Stan Sheriff Center while the pair were watching another game at the Diamond Head Classic. Regardless, the scene was ugly and cast a pall over Sidney and the program.

During that time period, Mississippi State dealt with absurd scheduling that took it from the Bahamas to Las Vegas to Hawaii to Las Vegas (losing to Virginia Tech and Saint Mary's in bookending a Hawaii trip that saw only one win in three games). The Bulldogs also crammed in four games in four nights, all to get games in before Sidney and junior guard Dee Bost (suspended for 14 games for a combination of not withdrawing from the NBA draft and being academically ineligible) could get ready for the SEC.

"We still found a way to get to 9-7 in the SEC,'' Stansbury said. "It would be nice to have everybody healthy and get some rhythm and be consistent.''

The Bulldogs had been together in the first few weeks of practice. The season opener against Eastern Kentucky went well. But then Akron arrived in Starkville last Wednesday and Zeke Marshall's 10 points, 6 boards and 5 blocks before fouling out were enough to disrupt Sidney (12 points) and Moultrie (2-of-13 shooting, 8 points) in Akron's surprising 10-point win.

Akron is a MAC title contender. South Alabama doesn't share the same status in the Sun Belt. Still, the Bulldogs were able to have much more offensive fluidity without Sidney. They were 2-of-13 on 3s against Akron -- a credit to the defense -- and were 8-of-27 from long range against South Alabama. Moultrie scored 28 points, and the guards had plenty of looks. Sidney's replacement, Wendell Lewis, doesn't match his potential. But who on this team does? No one, and that is the Stansbury dilemma.

The ball flows better on offense. The team can get up and down the court easier on defense.

The Bulldogs have a veteran lead guard in Dee Bost and more than serviceable wings in Rodney Hood and Brian Bryant. And Stansbury said the Bulldogs are starting to be whole again after freshman Deville Smith returned to the team and played three minutes against Akron and 19 minutes against South Alabama (4 assists, zero turnovers and 1 steal).

"It will make a difference,'' Stansbury said. "We can get Dee off the point some.''

The Bulldogs aren't going to make or break their season here in New York. But there is a real chance to make a difference and gain momentum -- for Sidney and for this team -- by getting wins without the drama.

"Texas A&M is really good, maybe not as good as the team last night [Kentucky],'' Stansbury said.

But to beat the Aggies, and to become an elite team that really does challenge Kentucky, Florida and possibly Vanderbilt and Alabama, not to mention Ole Miss, Mississippi State needs to figure out what to do with Sidney.

"This has been different, more so than anybody I've coached, for sure,'' Stansbury said. "We're trying to get him to play to his potential. No how matter how much we want it, or everybody else wants it, the challenge is for him to want to get there.''

Stansbury doesn't know how good Sidney and Moultrie will be together. It sounds good in theory. But it hasn't happened yet to feel as though it will work.

"I haven't seen it yet,'' Stansbury said. "There's no question they can play together. Arnett can play inside and out. There is plenty of room on and off the court. Arnett is a terrific rebounder. And the two of them would be tough to handle in there. But our challenge is not about minutes together but to have [Sidney] have productive minutes. We hope it gets better.''

Having Sidney on the court can be disruptive -- and even detrimental -- if he can't move well. The Bulldogs don't want to be susceptible to transition defense.

"That's our challenge,'' Stansbury said.

There are many challenges with Sidney, and Stansbury has been incredibly patient.

He took the risk, a gamble that some, but not all coaches, would take. Sidney was a hometown player who had plenty of NBA interest. Now that interest has waned considerably. If it were overwhelming, Sidney would have gone to the league last season. It wasn't. He stayed, and now he's still trying to find his footing. The Bulldogs are trying to figure this all out, as well. But they can't afford to drop games in the process. This week will be quite telling as to how this experiment ultimately will play out.

At this time last year, Ben Hansbrough's name didn't appear on the Wooden Award preseason watch list.

Five months later, he edged out Connecticut's Kemba Walker for Big East Player of the Year.

Using that as a backdrop, let's remember that the list of 50 Wooden nominees is flawed, much like any of the award lists. The Wooden Award does not allow its voters to nominate any freshmen or transfers (either four-year or junior college) on their ballots.

And with college basketball as loaded with talent as any year since 2007-08, narrowing it down to 50 is not easy. So below I've attempted to come up with the names that didn't make it, either as "just missed the cut" omissions or just because they're freshmen or transfers. These guys aren't on the list (which can be found here), but might show up when it's updated during the season.

This group is by no means definitive, either. There's no telling who else might emerge nationally as the games get under way.

Let's take a look …

The omissions (in alphabetical order):

Julian Boyd, Long Island: The Blackbirds are the favorite again in the Northeast Conference and the main reason is because Boyd is back and ready to dominate the stat sheet.

D.J. Cooper, Ohio: The diminutive point guard does a little bit of everything; he averaged 15.8 ppg, 7.5 apg and 5.0 rpg for the Bobcats last season.

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Duke's Seth Curry
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSeth Curry hasn't done enough to warrant a mention on a preseason watch list, but he might end up being a Wooden addition.

Jared Cunningham, Oregon State: Cunningham has some of the best hops in the sport and a chance to be a Pac-12 star, allowing the Beavers to finally move up in the standings this season.

Seth Curry, Duke: Curry was a standout shooter for the Blue Devils on their trip to China and could be one of the top scorers on the team.

Brandon Davies, BYU: Davies was recently reinstated to the Cougars, and the offense is expected to flow through him inside and out as BYU mounts a campaign to win the WCC in its first year in the league.

Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's: SMC coach Randy Bennett envisions this as one of the best teams he's ever had, but a lot of that will have to do with whether Dellavedova can shoot like Mickey McConnell did last season.

Greg Echenique, Creighton: Echenique was a rebounding force for Venezuela this summer and should do even more for the Bluejays with a full season to work with.

TyShwan Edmondson, Austin Peay: The Governors should be the favorite in the Ohio Valley with a legit scorer like Edmondson, who has a strong man, Will Triggs, to take pressure off him.

Kyle Fogg, Arizona: Fogg is next in line to assume a leadership position for the Wildcats, who are in a position to compete for Pac-12 titles for years to come.

Kevin Foster, Santa Clara: As a sophomore, Foster sort of came out of nowhere to average 20.2 ppg and become one of the nation's top 3-point shooters.

Chris Gaston, Fordham: The Rams aren't any good, but the nation's leading returning rebounder (11.3 rpg) at least deserves a shout-out in this space.

Yancy Gates, Cincinnati: UC coach Mick Cronin said he'd be surprised if Gates wasn't one of the 10 names on the Big East preseason first team.

Malcolm Grant, Miami (Fla.): The Hurricanes have to play most of the season without big man Reggie Johnson, so Grant will have more opportunities to shine.

Rob Jones, Saint Mary's: Jones could be a double-double regular for the Gaels, and for Saint Mary's to win the WCC, Jones will have to be a star.

Doron Lamb, Kentucky: John Calipari says Lamb will be the Wildcats' best player. Just Coach Cal mind games, or the truth?

Meyers Leonard, Illinois: Leonard didn't contribute a whole lot as a freshman, but he was a hidden gem on the U.S. U-19 team in Latvia this summer. The Illini are expecting big things out of him.

C.J. McCollum, Lehigh: McCollum is the nation's leading returning scorer (21.8 ppg) and is in the top five in steals (2.5 spg). Oh, and he did that as a freshman. What more do you need to know?

Cameron Moore, UAB: The Blazers have been consistently good under Mike Davis and have had unheralded C-USA stars. Moore is the latest.

Toure' Murry, Wichita State: If the Shockers win the Missouri Valley over Creighton, a lot of the credit will end up going to the veteran Murry.

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Ryan Pearson
Rafael Suanes/US PresswireRyan Pearson looks to lead Mason to another run to the NCAAs.

Brandon Paul, Illinois: Illini coach Bruce Weber was a bit surprised Paul didn't crack the top 50 on the Wooden list, given his overall importance to this team.

Ryan Pearson, George Mason: The Patriots are a trendy pick for the Top 25 and a lot of that has to do with the versatility of Pearson.

Damier Pitts, Marshall: The Thundering Herd are a real sleeper to gain an NCAA tourney berth out of Conference USA in large part because of Pitts.

Herb Pope, Seton Hall: Pope has come back from multiple life-threatening situations and has a real shot as a senior to put it all together and finally shine.

Terrence Ross, Washington: The Huskies can't be dismissed as a major player for the Pac-12 title, and if they win it, Ross will be a significant reason why.

Robert Sacre, Gonzaga: Sacre has matured into a solid post player, and that progress shows no signs of stopping as the Zags once again compete for the West Coast title.

Mike Scott, Virginia: If the sleeper Cavs mount a run to the NCAA tournament, the oft-injured Scott will be the reason why.

Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State: If Sidney is in shape and plays up to his potential, he has SEC Player of the Year potential and could be the difference between the Bulldogs making the NCAAs or NIT.

Andrew Smith, Butler: The Bulldogs will have fewer stars this season, but Smith has a chance to outshine Khyle Marshall and newcomer Roosevelt Jones with his scoring prowess in the post.

Chace Stanback, UNLV: Stanback's suspension to start the season is only one game, so that won't diminish his ability to lead the Rebels in their hunt for a Mountain West title.

Raymond Taylor, Florida Atlantic: FAU quietly won the Sun Belt East Division last season and Mike Jarvis' diminutive point guard was the catalyst behind the regular-season championship.

Hollis Thompson, Georgetown: If the Hoyas are to make the NCAA tournament again and be a pest in the upper half of the Big East, then Thompson needs a breakout season.

Kyle Weems, Missouri State: Doug McDermott is the one everyone is talking about in the Valley, but let's not forget that Weems is the reigning MVC Player of the Year. Too bad for the Bears he's their only returning starter.

Kendall Williams, New Mexico: The sophomore guard was the leading scorer in four postseason NIT games for the Lobos and should only get better with the addition of Australian Hugh Greenwood.

The transfers

Dewayne Dedmon, USC: Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill firmly believes this JC transfer is an NBA talent who could dominate the post and average a double-double for SC.

Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State: The former UTEP big man is ready to have a bust-out season for a team that has serious bounce-back potential after a disappointing 2010-11 campaign.

Mike Rosario, Florida: The former Rutgers scoring guard finally has plenty of support around him and will put up numbers for a winner.

Rakim Sanders, Fairfield: The Boston College transfer should flourish after dropping down a level, and he should get coach Sydney Johnson another trip to the NCAA tourney. Johnson is beginning his first year at Fairfield after leading Princeton to the 2011 tourney.

Royce White, Iowa State: White is finally ready to be a star on the college scene after multiple transgressions at Minnesota.

Brandon Wood, Michigan State: The Spartans picked up a rare senior transfer (taking advantage of the graduate transfer rule) from Valparaiso who could be one of the best shooters in the Big Ten.

Tony Woods, Oregon: The embattled Woods arrived from Wake Forest after legal issues and has a chance to really shine as a double-double player for the first time in his career.

The freshmen

Bradley Beal, Florida: Beal has a chance to be a productive player in a frontcourt that has a vacuum after multiple seniors departed.

Gary Bell Jr., Gonzaga: Coach Mark Few has been anticipating Bell's arrival for over a year now. He's expected to step in and deliver right away.

Wayne Blackshear, Louisville: The Cardinals fancy themselves a Big East title contender, and that's partly because they consider Blackshear a star in the making.

Jabari Brown, Oregon: Brown was the star of the Ducks' trip to Italy with his scoring prowess, and expect that to continue in the Pac-12.

Jahii Carson, Arizona State: There is some question right now as to Carson's eligibility, but if he's good to go, the Sun Devils might become relevant in the Pac-12 again.

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Anthony Davis
Brendan NolanThere seems to be little doubt that freshman Anthony Davis will have a major impact for UK.

Erik Copes, George Mason: Copes was bound for George Washington before Karl Hobbs was fired; now he'll be a headline performer for the Patriots and first-year coach Paul Hewitt.

Anthony Davis, Kentucky: Davis has a chance to be the SEC Player of the Year and the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, so expect him to be on the midseason list when freshmen are allowed.

Andre Drummond, Connecticut: He will be an immediate star and help lift the Huskies into the national title chase again. He's more than likely a future top-five pick in the NBA.

Myck Kabongo, Texas: Coach Rick Barnes has had quite a bit of success with big-time freshmen guards, and Kabongo is next in line.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky: Gilchrist will be another star on what will be a headline team throughout the season.

Johnny O'Bryant, LSU: Coach Trent Johnson needs the Tigers to start trending upward again, and he has a shot with the arrival of the big man from Mississippi.

LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State: OSU is a bit of a mystery team in the Big 12, but the All-American from Dallas could push the Cowboys into contention.

Austin Rivers, Duke: Rivers will have the ball in his hands quite a bit and appears to be the next Duke star in a lengthy list of recognizable names.

Josiah Turner, Arizona: The Wildcats will win the Pac-12 regular-season title if Turner is as good as advertised.

Cody Zeller, Indiana: If coach Tom Crean is going to turn the Hoosiers into a relevant team this season, it will be because of Zeller and his impact in the Big Ten.

Connecticut is putting on the full-court press to join the ACC in case the league decides to expand again. And Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina coach Roy Williams both told ESPN.com they would like to see the league eventually go to 16 teams, with two eight-team divisions.

But there is no sense of urgency in the ACC, especially since the Big East for the moment is making Pitt and Syracuse stay for 27 months per the league's bylaws. The conference has plenty of time to figure out how to schedule its 14-team league.

So the attention now returns to the SEC with Monday's official announcement that Texas A&M will join the conference for the 2012-13 season. That gives the league 13 teams.

Should there be more?

Like Krzyzewski and Williams, Kentucky coach John Calipari would eventually like to see his conference get to 16.

"I don't think this stuff is done yet," Calipari said. "I've said for months that there may be four conferences with 16 or 18 teams each. But I can tell you that the SEC at 13, 14 or 16 is going to be stable. We're fine. If they're going to add, I'd like us to go and get Virginia Tech, Maryland and Missouri to go along with Texas A&M. We're not going to do anything at the expense of academics. You're also going to see basketball step up in the next five years in the SEC."

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John Calipari
Howard Smith/US PresswireJohn Calipari would like to see the SEC add Missouri, Virginia Tech and Maryland.

Calipari tweeted Monday that he thought the move to add the Aggies was tremendous for the league and new coach Billy Kennedy, a native of SEC country (Louisiana).

"Texas A&M is a great school academically, has a well-run athletic department and will fit well," Calipari said. "Their fan base is ridiculous, just like all of us. The SEC is different. The SEC is about schools with strong fan bases and geography. We want the markets. There is no buyout in the SEC because no one wants to leave."

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said he would have been fine with the SEC staying put at 12 teams, but he's not against the expansion.

"I like the simplicity of an even number and I'm not sure it was completely necessary," Stallings said. "I don't think we're finished seeing movement and if so, if we end up at 14 or 16, if that's what the commissioner's office said we need, then I'm fine with it. Our league isn't going anywhere. We're as stable as any league in college athletics and we have visionaries who run our league. If they think we're better suited to be at 14 or 16, then I'm OK with that."

The SEC will run into issues on further expansion since it would be hard to take a team from a state where there is already a conference member. The new ACC buyout of up to $20 million poses a problem, too. But the new markets in new states is what Calipari was talking about when he rattled off Missouri, Maryland and Virginia Tech. Still, it would be extremely difficult to pry the Terrapins away from playing Duke and North Carolina every year or the Hokies from rival Virginia after Tech expended a lot of political capital with the Cavaliers to not block the school's move from the Big East to the ACC eight years ago.

The SEC's current number of 13 will be a scheduling issue for football and basketball. Football still has divisions, which is a matter unto itself as the league decides what to do with the Aggies and how to handle an unbalanced schedule.

The SEC got rid of divisions for men's basketball for this season, but the scheduling format still mirrors the football East-West split with each team playing its old side twice and the other once for the 2011-12 season.

Stallings was on an SEC committee to determine a 12-team, no-division schedule for 2012-13. The consensus was to have everyone play each other once (11 games), with seven more games coming from doubling up against league opponents to get to 18 league games. The SEC currently plays 16. The same formula is expected to be applied to a 13-team, no-division SEC next season. The Atlantic 10, which has 14 teams, has a format of playing only 16 league games with every team playing each other at least once, three teams twice.

The question for the SEC will be which rivalries are protected in a doubling-up scenario. There are a few natural ones to protect like Alabama-Auburn, Ole Miss-Mississippi State and Vanderbilt-Tennessee with newer ones like Kentucky-Florida and maybe more traditional ones like Tennessee-Kentucky or Florida-Georgia kept, as well. There could be a need to ensure Texas A&M plays LSU twice as well, or perhaps twice with Arkansas, a former rival from the Southwest Conference.

Whatever the case, Stallings doesn't seem all that worried.

"I think we just have to have an open mind going forward," he said. "We'll come to the best concept relative to 13."

Renardo Sidney marches to the beat of his own drum. Always has, apparently always will.

And Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury is trusting that this time Sidney knows what he's doing by staying with renowned personal reformer John Lucas instead of joining the Bulldogs on a foreign trip to Amsterdam in two weeks.

The move by Sidney to return to work out with Lucas in Houston after being there for two months better pay off with a more lean, focused and team-oriented player or else Stansbury may end up derailing his team for the second straight season based on Sidney's whims.

A year ago, Stansbury jammed in a ridiculous schedule of five games in five days as well as a Bahamas-Las Vegas-Hawaii-Las Vegas road trip to put high-profile games all in a row in late December because of a nine-game NCAA suspension imposed on Sidney from the previous year. The schedule was also designed to deal with a 14-game combined NCAA/academic suspension of point guard Dee Bost.

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Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey
AP Photo/Eugene TannerRenardo Sidney's fight with Elgin Bailey in Hawaii was the lowlight of a disappointing 2010-11 season for MSU.

It totally backfired as the Bulldogs lost all but one of the games on the five-game road trip and Sidney was suspended twice -- once for being insubordinate in practice and another for a televised fight with former teammate Elgin Bailey in the stands at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.

Sidney ended up averaging 14.2 points and 7.6 rebounds for the Bulldogs.

"He's lost 23 pounds," said Lucas of Sidney, who was listed on the MSU website as weighing 270 prior to working out with Lucas. "He wanted to get more weight off through conditioning and running. He wants to be more focused. We're teaching him to be much more professional."

Lucas said he was surprised when he got the call that Sidney wanted to return to his workout regimen of getting up before 6 a.m. to run at least three miles before he heads to the gym. Sidney is one of 14 college players and at least 20 NBA players who are working out with Lucas.

Lucas said that Sidney's mother has been paying for his hotel bill during his two-plus month stay in Houston. He said the school cannot fund the workouts or expenses.

"He's a good kid, but what I didn't realize is that he was that good," said Lucas, a former NBA head coach who has specialized in helping reform players on the court and off, especially those who have dealt with substance-abuse problems. With Sidney, he's dealing with more of a mental hurdle and some anger-related issues.

"I had never seen the kid play and I had no idea what to expect," Lucas said. "We've had two or three blowups. I've had to tell him to take his fat ass out there and get to work. I'm helping him grow as a professional.

"Somewhere down the line he lost some motivation. When kids get ranked real high early I think they think they've got it made. When he wanted to come back I was shocked. This isn't easy. He wants to do it. He wants to get more weight off him. He doesn't have to do it."

But Sidney will be missing critical practice and game time with his teammates. The Bulldogs need a season with no disruptions. Stansbury said he's pleased Sidney has lost weight, but reiterated that this was Sidney's choice not to go on the trip.

He said Sidney plans on returning to the team when school resumes, but he's not there now. The Bulldogs spent the weekend working as a team for the trip and they'll resume next week before departing. The trip will be beneficial for cohesiveness as freshmen guards Rodney Hood and Deville Smith learn to play with Bost. UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie, who should have a major impact up front for the Bulldogs, will also get much-needed reps.

Stansbury's plan is to play Moultrie and Sidney together with the former at the 5 and the latter at the 4. Starting 33 games as a sophomore, Moultrie led the Miners in rebounding (6.7) and averaged 9.8 ppg. They will be able to practice together when normal practice begins in October, but it sure seems like a waste not have them work out together in July and play some foreign games in August to get them ready for the season.

On the other hand, Lucas said building up Sidney's self-esteem and getting him in shape will be just as much of a help for team chemistry.

"I think the team camaraderie needs him to improve and get the weight off," Lucas said. "That will help his focus in October."

Stansbury is once again putting together a challenging schedule for a team that will be vying for a top-five spot in the SEC with Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida and Alabama. The Bulldogs are in the 2K Sports Classic in New York with Arizona, Texas A&M and St. John's, play Baylor in Dallas, host West Virginia and Utah State, and travel for a tricky road game at Horizon contender Detroit.

Stansbury said the Bulldogs are close to a deal to play Oregon, which would leave the Bulldogs just one game left to schedule. No matter who that ends up being, this tough slate has a chance to dramatically help the program's RPI if the Bulldogs compete well in the SEC.

Of course this is all based on Mississippi State's hope that Sidney doesn't implode the team from the inside out. Spurning Europe and sticking with Lucas better be the right move for Sidney and the Bulldogs or else the beefy nonconference schedule won't matter on Selection Sunday.

The team has plenty of talent and potential, but simply can't survive that schedule and a tough SEC if there's again internal strife.

Rick Stansbury was the only SEC coach who didn't want to scrap the two divisional format for fear that rivalries and fan interest would fade late into the season.

Mississippi State has been in the thick of the SEC West race on an annual basis under Stansbury. The Bulldogs have won at least a share of the West title four of the past five seasons. But only twice did that result in an NCAA tournament berth. One of those times occurred when Mississippi State won the SEC tournament.

Stansbury grasps that winning the West guarantees nothing. But he still didn't want to see the league dismiss the tradition of the two-division setup.

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Rick Stansbury
Kelly Lambert/US PresswireRick Stansbury wanted to keep the divisional format in the SEC for the fans.

But he was a lone voice. The coaches voted 11-1 to endorse a proposal to move to one 12-team league for the 2011-12 season at their spring meetings in Destin, Fla., on Tuesday. Later that day, the athletic directors endorsed the proposal. The schedule won't change next season but it will change in 2012-13 when teams in the West won't necessarily play twice in a season. Mississippi State may end up playing Kentucky twice and LSU once in a new 16 or 18-game format.

"There's no question that down the stretch of the season there is a lot of excitement about the [division] races," Stansbury said. "We've been told by the [NCAA tournament men's basketball] committee that they break teams down individually. So it doesn't matter [if there is one league or two divisions]. I just think this is bad for the fans. Championships create excitement."

Stansbury said he endorsed changing the SEC tournament format to reward the top teams regardless of divisional record with the four byes. Now, it won't matter as the top four teams in the 1-12 league will receive the byes instead of a second-place SEC West team getting a bye over a third-place SEC East team with a better record.

"I understand it and I don't have a problem with it now but I do think it will take away some of the fans excitement," Stansbury said. "I think there is a big argument for that."

Stansbury said he doesn't buy the point that the West is the only side that had issues getting teams in the NCAA tournament, citing that three years ago South Carolina tied for the East title and didn't receive a bid. The Gamecocks tied with Tennessee in 2009 with a 10-6 record, but were the second seed in the East and didn't receive a bid to the NCAAs.

"It's not all about the East," Stansbury said. "Our league has gone in cycles. We've held our own for sure."

The Bulldogs certainly have been in the thick of the race and most recently with plenty of drama, too.

Stansbury is coming off easily his most frustrating/rewarding/bizarre season as head coach in Starkville. A year ago, he was hoping the NCAA would reinstate point guard Dee Bost after he was the only player who didn't know that the draft date had changed to May 8 and that a player couldn't return to school if he wasn't selected. Bost had to sit the first nine games. But he was also ineligible for the fall semester, which meant a total of 14 games.

Renardo Sidney, who was already a year behind after having to sit his first season in school while amateurism issues were sorted out, was suspended for the first nine games of the season, too.

Then came Sidney's one-game suspension for practice misconduct followed by the haymakers he exchanged with teammate Elgin Bailey in the stands at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu that cost him two more games. Sidney was sent home. So, too, was Bailey. Sidney, though, was reinstated. Bailey transferred.

All of this occurred during one of the most insane schedules ever with five games in five days and then a trek from Jackson, Miss., to Nassau, Bahamas, to Las Vegas to Honolulu to Las Vegas and home again. Mississippi State lost four of the five games on the trip. The five games in five days prior to the trip was done to jam as many games as possible into the first semester to help eat up Bost's and Sidney's suspension time.

The season couldn't end soon enough after senior guard and leading scorer Ravern Johnson was suspended in early February for two games.

Yet, somehow, the Bulldogs managed to finish 9-7 in the SEC, 17-14 overall.

"Playing that five-game schedule and half the season without Dee and Renardo is what made it a challenge and put us behind," Stansbury said.

Does this mean Stansbury -- the lone critic at the SEC meetings -- has nothing to complain about with his team? Possibly. Sidney is working out with John Lucas in Houston and Stansbury said so far all is well. Bost is back for his senior season.

"I like our chances," Stansbury said.

The SEC top order will likely be Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Florida and then Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs will practice for 10 days in July in advance of a European excursion to Belgium, France and the Netherlands. That should help jump start the season for the Bulldogs.

Stansbury doesn't mind beating to his own drum within the SEC. He has dealt with plenty of distractions during his 13 years at MSU, mostly from players leaving early for the NBA draft.

He didn't want change in the SEC. He liked the reliable structure every season. But he was in the minority with no support. Now he'll just deal. And he'll try to make a move up the standings again, even if there are no divisions to champion.

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury got what he wanted: Renardo Sidney scoring in the post on a regular basis and Dee Bost leading the Bulldogs to SEC wins.

But the two wins were against a struggling Ole Miss -- even in Oxford -- and bottom-feeder Auburn in Starkville.

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Bost
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisIn just his second game back, Bost had 25 points, eight boards and six assists in a win at Ole Miss.

If the Bulldogs are to be taken seriously as a potential SEC tournament title contender, they must be a factor over the next three games. Mississippi State goes to Georgia on Saturday, where Sidney will tussle with SEC preseason player of the year Trey Thompkins, and then hosts Vanderbilt and Florida. Win two of those three and the Bulldogs will suddenly be viewed in a different light.

But through three SEC games, Stansbury has a completely different opinion of his team than he did during the train wreck trip of the Bahamas-Hawaii-Las Vegas that produced just one win and a national embarrassment when Sidney and former player Elgin Bailey exchanged haymakers in the stands during a Diamond Head Classic game on Dec. 23.

"We're starting over," Stansbury said Tuesday of the Bulldogs, who are now 10-7 overall, 2-1 in the SEC.

Bost was suspended for the first 14 games of the season for failing to know the NBA draft rule last May when he declared and didn't withdraw by the May 8 deadline, and for being academically ineligible for the fall semester. His first game was the SEC opening loss at home to Alabama. That was also Sidney's first game after being suspended for his role in the fight that forced him to miss the previous two games.

Sidney was 1-of-8. Bost was 5-of-16 for 14 points. Mississippi State lost 75-57.

"What isn't understood is that Dee missed 17 straight days of practice while we were gone on that crazy road trip," Stansbury said. "He had no legs in that first game. It was like an exhibition game for him but it was the SEC."

Sidney scored 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting and Bost scored 25 in the win over Ole Miss. The Bulldogs then squashed Auburn by 19 with Sidney scoring 15 and Bost scored nine.

"Two weeks ago that game would have been a dogfight," Stansbury said. "Sidney's mental approach is 100 percent better. He's more focused than at any time in his life. He's consistent in practice."

Stansbury is sticking by his decision to keep Sidney and jettison Bailey (the party line was that Bailey wanted to transfer but the Bulldogs didn't want to keep both and are adamant that Bailey started the fight). Sidney was also suspended for the Washington State game in Honolulu for verbally undressing a walk-on that was trying to encourage him in practice. Sidney is on a short leash. One more mistake and he could be gone.

"He's made mistakes and he's learning from them," Stansbury said.

Bailey is gone and Twany Beckham left, too. So the Bulldogs are a tighter group and there seems to be a sense that Ravern Johnson and Kodi Augustus will play better with Bost. Having Sidney as a reliable post scorer also could take pressure off them. Stansbury said he's moved on and so has Sidney. Stansbury said "none of us liked what happened but it happened on TV. We're going to make the best of it.

"We're making progress and I think that if we keep this team together we're going to be a good basketball team," Stansbury said. "We won the tournament two years ago [over Tennessee] and should have won it last year if it weren't for the last four seconds [against Kentucky]. We've got a chance again. We've got a chance. I like the position we're in."

LAS VEGAS -- Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said Tuesday morning that he has gathered the facts of the televised, in-the-stands fight last Thursday in Honolulu between little-known Elgin Bailey and one-time McDonald's All-American Renardo Sidney.

Stansbury said he will make a decision on the final penalties for the suspended players a few days after the team returns to Starkville, Miss. The Bulldogs play Saint Mary's on Wednesday at Las Vegas' Orleans Arena (ESPNU, 11 p.m. ET). It's the last stop on what has become a nightmare trip for the preseason SEC West favorite.

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Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey
AP Photo/Eugene TannerThe fight seen around the world is not the kind of attention Mississippi State was seeking.

Stansbury won't make the facts public yet, but sources close to the team told ESPN.com that he's working off an investigation that Bailey was the instigator of the scuffle because he didn't move his feet in the aisle while Sidney was trying to walk past him, antagonizing the previously-suspended Sidney into a fight. According to Stansbury, had Sidney been the one who started the scuffle -- instead of the one who Stansbury believes tried to walk away -- Sidney would likely be dismissed.

The now-sophomore sat out all of last season during an amateurism investigation, and he was sidelined for the first nine games of this season as a result of the violation penalty.

Outside of what occurred in a practice in Honolulu last week, Stansbury said Sidney hadn't been a problem for the team. He had yelled at a walk-on who was trying to encourage him during the practice, and it escalated to the point that Stansbury had to get him off the court. He was then suspended for the Bulldogs' first game of the Diamond Head Classic, an 83-57 loss to Washington State on Dec. 22.

Sidney made his college basketball debut against Virginia Tech on Dec. 18 at the Atlantis Hotel on Paradise Island, Bahamas. He finished with 12 points in 25 minutes before fouling out. He then scored 19 points with six boards in 20 minutes in the 69-52 consolation-round win over San Diego last Thursday. Later that night, he and Bailey got into the fight that was seen on ESPNU.

Bailey and Sidney were sent home before the Christmas Day fifth-place game, a 68-57 loss to host Hawaii. Stansbury said they traveled on separate planes to their respective home-state destinations -- Bailey to Louisiana and Sidney to Mississippi.

Stansbury will not disclose what he will do yet, but there is a strong sense in the program, according to sources, that based on the information Stansbury received from players and staff at the site, Bailey could be dismissed while Sidney is retained. Stansbury was in the arena, scouting the Utah-Hawaii game, when the fight occurred. He took his scout seat, across from where the players were sitting, and was informed of the pre-game scuffle five minutes into the game. He then saw it on multiple television screens in the arena.

"It's going to be my decision,'' Stansbury said. "Our athletic department can be a part of it, and Scott [Stricklin, the Mississippi State athletic director] and I have talked about it. But the one thing I've always done in my program is to make the right decisions about my program. This was an embarrassing situation for everybody.''

Stansbury said he has already talked to upper administration about the incident that went viral all over television and the Internet. "I don't think there's anything that they've got to prove to me now,'' Stansbury said of his two players. "Some of it has already been proven to me. I went through this period to get all the facts of what took place that night.

"A fight takes place all the time, but I don't know if there's ever been one that has taken place on national TV in the stands. If it's in the locker room or the playing [practice] court, it can happen a lot of times but no one hears about it. This time the camera was on it, and it gets magnified. It doesn't make it right, even if there hadn't been a camera on it.''

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Rick Stansbury
AP Photo/Eugene Tanner Rick Stansbury will make a final decision on what happens to Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey when his team returns to Starkville.

Stansbury doesn't view Sidney's amateurism violation as something that he did. Rather, it occurred as part of an out-of-whack system in which an elite, 6-foot-10, 270-pound forward was coddled along by sneaker companies and an entourage from the deep South to the West Coast.

Still, Sidney wasn't able to control his emotions last week. If he returns to the team, he'll be on thin ice and one incident away from a dismissal.

"When I get back from this trip, [the decision] will be pretty quick,'' Stansbury said. After their game with Saint Mary's, the Bulldogs don't play again until the SEC opener on Jan. 8 against Alabama.

Junior point guard Dee Bost will return for that game after completing a 14-game suspension that was a combination of his failure to withdraw from the NBA draft by the May 8 deadline (nine games from the NCAA) and his academic ineligibility for the first semester.

"I don't like the perception, but anybody who knows our program over the past 13 years knows we've had no problems,'' Stansbury said. "In my 13 years, there hasn't been a public embarrassment. This isn't the norm. It just happened. I won't understand why it happened. It just happened. And if people don't do right in our program, then we'll hold them accountable.''

The one thing Stansbury could have controlled was the schedule. And it has now officially backfired.

Mississippi State's haggard, travel-weary basketball team shuffled into the Orleans Hotel past midnight Tuesday morning for one last stop, one last game against Saint Mary's.

The cumulative nature of this rough schedule has taken its toll. It started with an unprecedented four games in four consecutive nights in Starkville, an exhibition in Jackson, Miss., a trip to the Bahamas and an overnight stop in Las Vegas en route to the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu (three games in four days over Christmas), in which MSU went 1-2. And then a final stop in Vegas again.

It's left a team that had preseason dreams of the NCAA tourney battered and bruised. "It's very taxing. We've put a lot of miles between us, and there's been a lot of sickness on this team,'' said guard Ravern Johnson, one of three seniors on the team. Johnson was so sick that he didn't practice from the time the team left the Bahamas until after the Washington State game four days later.

Stansbury created this schedule to jam as many games as possible into the first semester, so Bost would be eligible for the SEC contests. He also did it to account for Sidney's suspended games. That's why he had an exhibition game against Belhaven College in Jackson before Virginia Tech, which allowed Sidney one competitive game prior to his debut. "It looked a whole lot better when we put it together than having to go through it,'' Stansbury said. "The Diamond Head Classic was put together a few years ago. The Bahamas part we put together in May or June, not knowing we wouldn't have Dee. This one here [against Saint Mary's] was added late because we needed another game. The truth is we thought we'd have Dee too as part of this, and we thought it would be a quality game. We had no idea that some of these circumstances with the suspensions [of Bailey and Sidney] would occur and having to play these two games [at Hawaii and against Saint Mary's] without them. Then not playing Washington State with Sidney made that more difficult.''

But that still doesn't excuse the bad home losses to Florida Atlantic on Nov. 30 and East Tennessee State on Dec. 11 -- the first of the four games in four nights. Stansbury's plan was to win the nine guaranteed home games (buy games without a return) before the difficult five-game stretch.

"There were a lot of different egos on the team, and it was hard to please everybody, and sometimes as a coach you have to make certain decisions. But coach has been on the right track,'' Johnson said. "Everybody now is coming closer together as the trip ends. I know everybody is ready to go home, but this is another stop and we can't be so eager to get home and forget about this game. We have to talk about this, get this win and then go home.''

Stansbury said he will never schedule like this again. "You can't play four straight [in four nights] unless you have a veteran, tough team,'' Stansbury said. "You can't do this without your best player, your leader, or it makes it a real challenge. We had a bunch of new guys with Kodi [Augustus] and Ravern as the only two returning starters. You take Dee, Barry Stewart [a senior last season] and Jarvis Varnado [a senior last season] off this team and do this [schedule], and it gets magnified. The roles change. I'd never do this again unless I had a veteran team.''

Johnson said Bost will provide the leadership this team lacks. The junior point guard will be one of the top guards in the SEC as soon as he's eligible. "He's a good leader. He'll give a lot of assists and make this team better,'' Johnson said. "I'm looking forward to him coming back and taking that leadership role.''

Stansbury echoed Johnson, saying the team needs Bost, who averaged 13 points and 5.2 assists last season. "He gives us that one thing we don't have: our leader. A guy who can break people down off the dribble, create easy plays for everybody else, shoots it off the catch and bounce and is our best shut-down defender,'' Stansbury said. "He'll give everybody else a swagger.''

But can he heal a team that has been fractured by a fight seen by almost everyone? Stansbury and Johnson said they believe so. And it appears more likely that Stansbury will have to be the one to keep Sidney in check. "We just have to get all the pieces back,'' Stansbury said. "We haven't had Dee, and there will be some adjustments, like there was with Sidney, since Dee hasn't played the first 14 games. But I still like what we can become; we just have got to do it quickly.''