This Blog Has Moved

March 27, 2009 by

That’s right, my new blog – bookmark it – is up and running at NEMS360.com. Doesn’t have all the bells and whistles yet, and I can’t figure out why there are no breaks between paragraphs, but we’re headed in the right direction. You’ll have to register – it’s free and easy – to leave comments. I’m told there will soon be an RSS feed for the blog, but it’s still in the works.

Right now you can read my answers to your Blog Bag questions, and the new blog is where all entries will go from now on. That doesn’t mean you should delete this one from your bookmarks. We’ll keep it around for two reasons: 1) Archive purposes; and 2) as a backup if/when the new one has problems.

So, there you have it. WordPress has been good to us, but integration is a good thing. Please let me know what you think of the new blog, good or bad, and ways you think it could be improved. Thanks for your faithful readership, and thanks for sticking with us as the Daily Journal makes strides in the online world.

Today’s Theme: Moving Forward

March 27, 2009 by

Day 2 of spring drills for Mississippi State was different mainly because it wasn’t Day 1. Know what I mean? Dan Mullen does. Following Thursday’s session, he noted that difference: “I think practice moves a little bit smoother, practice moves a little bit better. But also, my expectations are much higher Day 2.” Indeed they are, as evidenced by the volume of his, um, instruction. Hey, most coaches yell, but it’s always interesting to watch how certain coaches handle a practice. Mullen’s intensity is unmatched, and nobody is exempt from his wrath, including assistant coaches. If you don’t know the drill, expect to get reamed out.

The thing that you have to like about Mullen is that he balances that intensity with praise. He cited the players’ efforts Thursday while emphasizing how much work lies ahead. “There were some improvements, but a long way to go. I think offensively, just the execution, I’m a little disappointed at the speed in which we’re picking things up right now.”

MSU returns to the practice field at 10 a.m. Saturday for fully padded, full-contact drills. Mullen expects to learn a lot about his team then.

Speaking of moving forward, I’m supposed to set up my new blog today at NEMS360.com, our new Web site. Hopefully, I’ll be posting stuff on it by this afternoon. Stay tuned to this blog for details.

As you can read in today’s Journal, MSU basketballer Jarvis Varnado is still pondering his future, while teammate Kodi Augustus has decided to stick with State. Speaking of players staying and going, Ole Miss starting center Malcolm White has left the team.

Finally, in baseball, the Bulldogs look to bounce back from a three-game sweep at the hands of Georgia and hope to find some runs at Arkansas this weekend. Today’s game starts at 6:35 p.m.

Varnado’s Dad: ‘Taking It Day by Day’

March 26, 2009 by

Winston Varnado, father of MSU center Jarvis Varnado, told me moments ago that today’s meeting with the coaching staff was mostly about Jarvis’ options for next year and what he must do to stay eligible if he chooses to enter the NBA Draft this summer. Winston Varnado said if Jarvis chose that route, would not use an agent. “He hasn’t even decided if he wants to test the waters,” Winston said.

Winston said the coaches “support whatever Jarvis’ decision will be.” He added, “(He’s) just taking it day by day. There’s no rush.”

Underclassmen must declare for the draft by April 26.

Varnado Undecided; Augustus Returning

March 26, 2009 by

Mississippi State junior center Jarvis Varnado just got out of a meeting with head coach Rick Stansbury and said … that he still isn’t sure what he wants to do next year. That’s according to team spokesman Gregg Ellis. Will Varnado return to Starkville? Enter the NBA Draft? I wouldn’t be surprised if he did what Gary Parrish suggested on this blog, which is to enter the draft without hiring an agent. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Stansbury released a statement about Varnado, saying, “We met this afternoon and no decision was made. But, we don’t have to be in a hurry because we have until April 26. Until then, we’ll gather all the facts we can and continue to communicate and come to a decision for what’s best for Jarvis.”

The Kodi Augustus saga has taken a turn for the better, as far as Mississippi State’s concerned. The 6-foot-8 sophomore has decided to stay with the Bulldogs, he said today. “It was my choice, I have to live with it,” he told me. “We just looked at everything, and the positives outweighed the negatives.” The “we” included his parents, MSU’s coaches, and Augustus’ AAU coach, the always opinionated John Eurey, who earlier in the season told me that the benching of Augustus was “unfair.” Augustus started the first nine of the games of the season after senior Brian Johnson went down but then was stuffed down the bench until late in the season.

Augustus finished the year strong, becoming the Bulldogs’ biggest contributor off the bench as they rolled to the SEC Tournament title and into the NCAA tournament. “I’m thrilled. All that’s coming back, basically the same team, way more experienced. Finally everybody can stop talking about how young we are,” he said. “We’re going to be way better than we were this year.”

How close was Augustus to leaving Starkville? Pretty close, he said. “I seriously thought about it after what I had went through my first year and my second year.” He insists there was never a rift between he and Stansbury. “Never was a problem. He told me he was trying to figure out some things. He said he had a bunch of pieces, he was trying to move some things around, that’s what happened. I just caught the bad end of it.”

Now Augustus can focus on next year, which he expects to be a good one for both MSU and himself. “I think I played well. I feel good about it, I’ve just got to keep doing it in order to get stronger. I’m going to go to some camps this summer and build on it and get stronger and get more knowledge about the game, and everything should fall into place.”

Cohen on Routt: Pitching ‘Amazingly Well’

March 26, 2009 by

Mississippi State’s pitching has been spotty this season, but two guys have been solid as starters: freshman lefty Nick Routt and junior lefty Tyler Whitney. Routt is 2-1 with a 2.56 ERA, eighth-best in the SEC. Whitney is also 2-1, with a 2.82 ERA. As they have in the first two SEC series this season, Whitney and Routt will start Friday and Saturday, respectively, against Arkansas.

“I think our kids really sense on weekends when Whitney and Routt are on the mound, we have a real chance to win the game,” MSU coach John Cohen said this morning. Routt has been especially sharp, with 31 strikeouts and eight walks in 31.2 innings. To Cohen, that’s beyond impressive.

“When you’re really good in this league, like Georgia, you take freshmen like Routt and you slowly involve him as a Tuesday or Wednesday type starter, and you get their feet wet, and as a sophomore and junior they’re ready to do well on weekends,” Cohen said. “We don’t have that luxury. He’s done amazingly well.”

Why has he done so well? Cohen said he throws a lot of strikes, has deception in his delivery, has a good repertoire – in general, “His understanding of his delivery and what he’s trying to do is so far beyond his age.”

Two problems for State (14-10, 2-4 SEC) have mitigated some of what Routt and Whitney have done: The rest of the pitching staff has been suspect, and the run support isn’t always there. The Bulldogs stranded 12 runners last weekend against Georgia – in each game. That’s 36 total for the mathematically challenged among you. MSU is 11th in the SEC in hitting (.287) and ninth in runs (141).

“We’re not an overly skilled offensive club,” Cohen said. “I thought our hitters in some cases were overmatched (against Georgia).”

More on the Bulldogs in tomorrow’s Journal.

Varnado & the NBA: ‘This Is About Potential’

March 26, 2009 by

Mississippi State junior center Jarvis Varnado would be a fool not to at least consider leaving early for the NBA, and he is considering it. The question that must be answered: Is he ready? Varnado had a breakout year in 2008-09, adding a solid offensive game to his already top-tier defensive game. Two questions within the larger question: Is that offensive game polished enough? And, is his body (6-foot-9, 210 pounds) ready for the next level?

DraftExpress.com projects Varnado as a first-round pick. Gary Parrish, senior writer for CBSSports.com, agrees that Varnado must at least test the waters.

“He has to test it, at least, because to not do so would be to waste an opportunity that literally has no downside,” Parrish wrote in an e-mail. “There’s absolutely no reason to not enter without hiring an agent, and I suspect that’s what he’ll do, just to see what franchises think. Remember, not all 30 teams have to like you for you to be a first-round pick. It only takes one team to like you, and if that happens, you’re good. So my understanding is that he’ll at least test it and go from there.”

Ah, but the big question: Is he ready? Says Parrish, “No, probably not. But who is, outside of Blake Griffin? There’s not another player in the draft who couldn’t stand to get a little stronger, a little better offensively, so on and forth. But that’s not what this is about. This is about potential, and whether somebody will give you millions of dollars based on it, and that’s what Jarvis has to find out. But clearly, if he wants to make a paycheck next season, he can. It’s just a matter of where, and for how much.”

I’m sure Varnado has looked back to last year, when Jamont Gordon left MSU after his junior season and went undrafted. But Varnado is a better player, and his ability to defend will be invaluable and could be what keeps him in the association for a long time. Stay tuned.

Brian Johnson: Clock’s Run Out

March 25, 2009 by

Following Mississippi State’s loss to Washington on the NCAA tournament on Thursday, senior Brian Johnson said he was going to petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. I can see why: He’s had to sit out two of the five years he’s been a collegiate athlete. He took a medical redshirt at Louisville his first year there (2004-05) and had to sit out after transferring to MSU (2006-07), per NCAA rules. So does he have a case?

Doesn’t look like it. MSU compliance guru Bracky Brett said Johnson would need an extension of his “five-year clock,” and that’s not likely to happen. “He does not meet the criteria for a clock extension,” Brett said. Why not? Because athletes are allowed two medical redshirts in their careers, and Johnson’s transfer season counted against that total. Sitting out for transferring is considered “under the control” of the athlete, Brett said, which just means Johnson had the choice to take that route.

Brett hasn’t yet talked with Johnson about it, but the coaching staff is aware of his intentions.

MSU’s football team began spring drills Tuesday, and so here’s the story on that. Dan Mullen and company return to the field Thursday at 3:30 p.m. Fan turnout yesterday was modest, with maybe 50 people in attendance at one point. Perhaps Saturday’s 10 a.m. session will draw better.

MSU greats Ron Polk and Rafael Palmeiro are among 10 selected to the 2009 National College Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Class. So that’s pretty cool. Speaking of baseball, the Bulldogs got whipped last night by South Alabama, 17-12. State hit three home runs in the ninth, which tells you how bad it really was. MSU is back in action today against Memphis, at home (6:30 p.m.), weather permitting.

Spring Practice, Day 1: Full Speed Ahead

March 24, 2009 by

The Dan Mullen Era is officially under way, because the product he’s putting together took to the field for the first time today in the first of 15 spring practices. The Bulldogs went for about three-and-a-half hours, and the difference between a Mullen practice and a Sylvester Croom practice was immediately apparent to the players.

“I think it’s more intense, more attention to detail, and a fast pace,” said linebacker Jamar Chaney. Quarterback Tyson Lee echoed that: “It’s just intense the whole way through.”

Everyone was happy to get outside and start practicing what they’ve been studying. “It’s great to back out on the field right now,” Mullen said. “This is what you work for. You do all that so you can get out here and play some football.”

Injury updates: TE Marcus Green (hamstring) looked completely healthy; Chaney (ankle) looked solid; RB Robert Elliott ran pretty well but was limited and just a little gimpy; WR Brandon McRae (leg), also limited, was moving gingerly; WR Delmon Robinson came up gimpy late in practice, holding his thigh. Also, Mark Melichar (mono) and Eric Richards (hip) were in uniform but didn’t practice.

Being pressed for time as I am tonight, here are some thoughts from Mullen, Chaney and Lee. Starting with Mullen:

• “We’ve got a long way to go. But I think our guys came out and gave some effort today, and that’s what we’re looking for after this offseason.”

• On freshman Cameron Lawrence (January enrollee) at QB: “We want to give him a shot, especially early on so he can learn the offense and add a little extra depth. If he does move to a different position, at least he has a foundation at quarterback.”

• On anyone standing out today: “I don’t know if there’s anybody that really jumped out and said, Boy, right there we’ve got ourselves a real football player. I think we’ve got a long way to go to get ourselves some football players.”

From Chaney:

•  On returning from injury: “I missed coming out here, dressing out with them before they go on to practice, just the little things that you wouldn’t think was a big deal before the injury.”

• On the mental workload: “On defense, we’ve got probably 25 percent of our defense is already in right now. They’re just putting it on us.”

• On Mullen’s coaching style: “He’s a real fiery guy. He’s a real cool coach, but he’s going to get after you, he’s going to make sure you do your job, and he’s going to make sure you go 100 percent, give all your effort.”

From Lee:

• On the mental workload: “It’s one thing sitting in a room and seeing things on paper, but actually getting out there with defenses and people moving, it makes a difference. That’s why tonight and tomorrow, watching film, it’s huge to look and see what I did wrong, what you did wrong, so you can learn from it.”

• On the QB battle: “It’s an open position. I ran with the ones today, Chris (Relf) ran with the twos. I don’t think that dictates or indicates anything as far as me starting.”

Re-Opening the Blog Bag

March 24, 2009 by

Now that I’m (finally) back in town, I suppose I can open up ye olde Blog Bag once again. And I bet I can guess what most of the questions will address (no, not the correct siting of a temperature sensor). As I’m sure you all know, spring football starts today, and what a perfect day for it – my Weather Channel app says it’ll be about 73 degrees when practice begins at 3:30 p.m.

To review, here is the spring practice schedule:

Today – 3:30 p.m.

Thursday, March 26 – 3:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 28 – 10 a.m.

Tuesday, March 31 – 3:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 2 – 3:30 p.m.

Friday, April 3 – 3:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 4 – 10 a.m.

Tuesday, April 7 – 3:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 9 – 3:30 p.m.

Friday, April 10 – 3:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 11 – 10 a.m.

Tuesday, April 14 – 3:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 16 – 3:30 p.m.

Friday, April 17 – 3:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 18 – Maroon-White Game, 5:30 p.m.

Springing Forward

March 24, 2009 by

Well, we can officially put basketball in the books. The Lady Bulldogs’ NCAA tournament run ended last night in Columbus, Ohio, with a 64-58 loss to No. 3 seed Ohio State. The 11th-seeded Lady Bulldogs (23-10) were held scoreless over the final 6 minutes, 43 seconds of the game and were denied their first trip to the Sweet 16. Nevertheless, a fine season.

We’re actually not quite done with hoops. The Bailey and Gillom trophies will be handed out next Monday, and MSU’s Jarvis Varnado and Alexis Rack are up for those awards, respectively. The focus for the next four weeks will be on MSU football. Spring drills start today at 3:30 p.m. Open to the public, so come on out to the practice fields behind Shira Fieldhouse. (By the way, State isn’t the only SEC team starting practice this week.)

New coach Dan Mullen promised his new players the hardest offseason workout program they’d ever experienced, and quarterback Tyson Lee can attest to that. The hardest part? “Everything,” Lee said. “Day in, day out, each workout, it pushes you to give everything you have. It’s not a workout where you can give 80, 85 percent.” The challenge now is to learn Mullen’s spread offense, a two-edged sword according to Lee. “The spread offense can be good and can be bad. With so many plays and formations, knowing what everybody is doing and getting the ball to the right person at the right time (is crucial).”

More on the first day of practice later today. I’ll be there.

What Day Is it Again?

March 23, 2009 by

Is it still Monday? I’ve been awake basically since Sunday morning – a fitful rest of the plane didn’t help much – so it feels like it should be Tuesday. But no, we know it’s Monday because Mississippi State’s women, seeded 11th, haven’t yet played No. 3 seed Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. That’s coming up at about 6 p.m. in Columbus, Ohio (ESPN2). Here’s the preview.

We’ll know when Tuesday’s here, because that’s when the MSU football team opens up spring practices under new coach Dan Mullen. We’ll have more on that in Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s papers. Remember, practices are open to the public, which Mullen sees as an advantage to his team. “For our players, you put 3,000 people out there on the hill watching practice, that’s going to increase the intensity of the team drills.”

Speaking of hoops, Jarvis Varnado is a finalist for the Howell Tropy, while Lady Bulldog Alexis Rack is a finalist for the Gillom Trophy. Winners to be announced March 30.

And the Bulldog baseball team, which is 13-9 after being swept at Georgia, has a pair of midweek games at South Alabama (Tuesday) and versus Memphis (Wednesday). Then it’s off to Fayetteville for a three-game set with Arkansas.

Lady Bulldogs Advance in NCAAs

March 21, 2009 by

Mississippi State’s women defeated Texas 71-63 today in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It was the Lady Bulldogs’ first NCAA appearance in six years. An 11 seed, MSU (23-9) will play the Ohio State-Sacred Heart winner at 6 p.m. Monday. These first two rounds of the Berkeley region are being played in Columbus, Ohio, on the home court of Ohio State, a No. 3 seed.

Alexis Rack led State with 20 points and hit 13 of 13 free throws. As a team, MSU made 21 of 22 at the line. Clutch.

Lady Bulldogs Open Tourney, Etc.

March 21, 2009 by

The Mississippi State women will see if they can do better than the men and win an NCAA tournament first-round game. The No. 11 seed Lady Bulldogs are about to tip off against No. 6 seed Texas in Columbus, Ohio. Here’s the preview. The game can be seen on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com.

As for the MSU men, though the season is over, there is a bright future to look forward to. All five starters back, a deep bench returning, Shaunessy Smith coming in – it ought to pay off.

To the baseball diamond, State lost 5-3 to Georgia despite collecting 14 hits. Tyler Whitney (2-1) took the loss. Today’s game in Athens starts at 2 p.m. Freshman Nick Routt (2-0) will start for MSU.

Still in Portland

March 20, 2009 by

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been unable to find an earlier flight back home. With two airlines and layovers involved in my scheduled Sunday flight itinerary, it’s a logistical nightmare. So I’ve switched to a cheaper hotel and, if I still can’t get out of town, will head back to the Rose Garden on Saturday and cover Western Kentucky’s game against Gonzaga. Why? Because Sergio Kerusch, a former ICC standout, plays for the Hilltoppers. Plus, hey, free basketball.

So anyway, here is today’s game story from MSU’s 71-58 loss to Washington, and here is the notebook. I’ll have a follow-up for Saturday’s Journal focusing on the Bulldogs’ bright future.

Let us not forget about baseball, and thanks to Parrish Alford for picking up my slack this week. MSU travels to No. 8 Georgia for its first SEC road series. Tyler Whitney and Nick Routt will pitch the first two games for State, with Sunday’s starter TBA.

A quick heads-up: The new blog is scheduled to go online next week, but the transition should be pretty quick and smooth. I’ll just post the new link on this site when the time comes, and I think y’all are smart enough to figure it out from there.

Hoops: Washington 71, MSU 58

March 19, 2009 by

Mississippi State’s Cinderella run ended here in Portland today at the hands of 15th-ranked and No. 4-seeded Washington (26-8). The 13th-seeded Bulldogs (23-13) never found their offensive rhythm, inside or out, shooting 33.9 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from 3-point range. Washington hit 43.5 percent of its shots and was led by Quincy Pondexter‘s season-high 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting. He had 15 at halftime, when Washington held what proved to be an insurmountable 38-27 lead.

Barry Stewart and Phil Turner led MSU with 11 points apiece. Jarvis Varnado was held to seven points in 22 minutes thanks to foul trouble. But back to the game in a moment.

When looking into the future for Mississippi State, it’s cloudy for a couple of Bulldogs. We know that sophomore Kodi Augustus, who’s become a force off the bench these last seven games, has been non-committal about his future with the team. “I haven’t thought about it yet,” he said after the game. “I’ll look at everything and take everything into consideration.” But then there is senior Brian Johnson, a projected starter who was forced to come off the bench due to a preseason ankle/foot injury. Johnson told me he plans to apply for a medical redshirt, although I’m not sure how that will work. He’s had one of those already, at Louisville, and sat out another year after transferring to State. I think what he meant to say was that he was going to seek an extra year of eligibility, not an actual redshirt, which wouldn’t make much sense.

“As soon as I get back I’m going to find out about that,” he said. He said he thinks he has a “50-50″ chance of his request being approved by the NCAA. I spoke with MSU compliance guru Bracky Brett, who sounded surprised to hear of Johnson’s intention. Brett said he couldn’t comment on it now but would be happy to in a few days.

OK, back to today’s game, with some postgame reaction. Starting with MSU coach Rick Stansbury:

• On his team’s energy level: “I didn’t think it was there from the tipoff. Not one time, except maybe in that second half, defensively about two or three trips, we really got into somebody and guarded them, but it didn’t last long. We just weren’t as quick as we normally are, as energetic as we normally are. I just didn’t see it in some areas.”

• On fatigue: “Y’all can write about it and think it’s a factor, I’m not going to make no excuses for our guys. I didn’t make it before the game, I’m sure not going to make it now. But it’s very obvious we weren’t at our best energy-wise and rhythm-wise, and I think you can attribute that to a couple of different things.”

• On Pondexter: “He was just a huge matchup, very athletic, bigger and stronger than he looked. … Everybody talks about Brockman and Isaiah, he’s kind of the wild card on that team.”

• On seeding/locale: “I’ve always said the SEC champion in that Sunday afternoon game, whoever that team is that wins it, never gets the respect or really the advantage of winning that tournament. Because they just plug you in somewhere. That’s the second time that’s happened to us, but again, we’re not going to make any excuses.”

From Ravern Johnson:

• On State’s shooting woes: “They played good D, they got into us, but I think we still had some pretty good looks. We missed a lot of layups.”

From Varnado:

• On his foul trouble: “I felt like if I would’ve stayed in there it would’ve been a lot different story. We’ve got to keep playing through it. If I’m out of the game, people have got to step up.”

From Turner:

• On State’s shooting woes: “It’s just one of those things. We’re a great-shooting basketball team, but give credit to Washington. They got into our guards, where usually we have some pretty good looks.”

• On Pondexter: “Pondexter is really a glue guy that gets things done; he was just big for them today.”

MSU-Washington: Official Game Thread

March 19, 2009 by

LIVE FROM PORTLAND

We’ve just seen Purdue dispatch a scrappy Northern Iowa team, 61-56, which means No. 13 seed Mississippi State (23-12) and No. 4 Washington (25-8) are up next in this West Region first-round game. The rest of today’s schedule involves a pair of South Region games: Gonzaga-Akron and Illinois-Western Kentucky.

Before we get to the basics, here’s one of those fun by-the-numbers:

1 – Jersey number of Washington’s Venoy Overton, a 5-foot-11 sophomore who was named honorable mention Pac-10 all-defensive team. He’s a reserve.

2 – Number of different lineups MSU has used this season, the lone change being Phil Turner for Kodi Augustus 10 games in.

3 – Top Pac-10 honors received by Huskies this year: Lorenzo Romar (Coach of the Year), Isaiah Thomas (Freshman of the Year) and Justin Dentmon (Most Improved).

4 – Washington’s seeding, its second-highest ever (No. 1 in 2005).

6 – Consecutive games won by MSU.

8 – Number of 20-win seasons for MSU coach Rick Stansbury.

12 – Number of times this season State has made at least 10 3-pointers in a game.

13 – Years since State last advanced past the second round of the NCAA tourney. Also, its seeding this year.

15 – Washington’s ranking in the latest AP poll (No. 14 in ESPN/USA Today poll)

19 – Number of blocks by MSU’s Jarvis Varnado over the last three games.

21 – Rebounds by State’s Turner over the last two games.

27.8 – Points per game from Washington’s bench in its last four wins.

28 – The combined 3-point shooting percentage of MSU’s last six opponents. Only Georgia (36.8) shot 30 percent or better.

30 – Average number of free throw attempts by the Bulldogs over its last five games. They’ve hit 72.7 percent of them.

58 – Career double-doubles for UW’s Jon Brockman, the NCAA’s active leader.

OK, here are the basics:

TV: CBS.
XM: Channel 199.
Series: Washington leads 1-0.
Last meeting: Washington, 82-80 on Dec. 27, 1967, in Jacksonville, Fla.
Coaches: MSU – Rick Stansbury (231-127, 11th year); Washington – Lorenzo Romar (237-168, 13th year; 144-80, seventh year at Washington).
Notes: Washington, the regular-season Pac-10 champ, is a No. 4 seed. MSU, the SEC Tournament champ, is seeded 13th. … For the third straight time, MSU opens the tournament against a Pac-10 team. … The winner plays the Northern Iowa-Purdue winner on Saturday. … This is Stansbury’s sixth NCAA appearance as a head coach. … Five of MSU’s last six opponents have shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range.

Probable starters
Mississippi State (23-12)

C – Jarvis Varnado    6-9    Jr.    13.1 ppg
G – Phil Turner    6-3    So.    8.5 ppg
G – Dee Bost    6-2    Fr.    11.1 ppg
G – Barry Stewart    6-3    Jr.    12.3 ppg
G – Ravern Johnson    6-7    So.    12.2 ppg
Top reserves: F Kodi Augustus, G Riley Benock, F Brian Johnson.

Washington (25-8)
G – Isaiah Thomas    5-8    Fr.    15.4 ppg
G – Justin Dentmon    5-11    Sr.    15.0 ppg
F – Jon Brockman    6-7    Sr.    14.9 ppg
F – Quincy Pondexter    6-6    Jr.    11.5 ppg
F – Darnell Gant    6-8    Fr.    3.1 ppg
Top reserves: F Matthew Bryan-Amaning, G Venoy Overton, F Elston Turner.

Isaiah Thomas: Who Is He?

March 19, 2009 by

You know the name, of course. First, to address the obvious question: Washington freshman point guard Isaiah Thomas is not related to former NBA star Isiah Thomas (note the different spellings). But there is a direct connection: The younger Thomas was named after the older one when James Thomas lost a bet in 1989. The younger Thomas’ dad wagered with a friend on the outcome of the NBA Finals series between the Lakers and Pistons, but instead of money, he put the first name of his yet-to-be-born son on the line. The Pistons won, and a few months later Isaiah was born (mom signed off because of its Biblical roots).

The 5-foot-8 Thomas has lived up to his name pretty well. He leads the Huskies (25-8) in scoring (15.4 ppg) and was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. Can Mississippi State (23-12) handle him today in the first round of the NCAA tournament (3:45 p.m., CBS)? That’ll depend largely on the play of MSU’s own freshman point guard, Dee Bost. The two have faced off before, in prep school last year. Bost was a shooting guard at the time but matched up with Thomas a little; Bost outscored him 21-18, and his Hargrave Military Academy team beat Thomas’ South Kent (Conn.) School.

“He’s a much more of scoring point guard. I’m probably more of a scoring, and a pass(ing guard),” Bost said. Thomas does have that score-first mentality, a mentality Bost has as well but has managed to subdue to a healthy degree. Thomas is quick and knows how to finish, so it’s understandable that he wants to light it up. Size has been no object, of course. When I talked with Thomas, he was sitting in his locker, with room to spare. He remembers Bost well, but said, “I’m just going into the game like any other game. I’m not going to really key on him, I’m just going to key on trying to get this win.”

Honestly, I’m psyched to watch how this point guard matchup unfolds. As well as the matchup with big men Jarvis Varnado, a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and Jon Brockman, a two-time All-Pac-10 first-teamer. Those two were included in today’s notebook.

But back to Bost and Thomas for a moment. Bost has been hard to rattle, leading State to wins at places like Bud Walton Arena, Rupp Arena and, of course, St. Pete Times Forum in the SEC Tournament. Thomas’ foray onto the “big stage,” as he calls it, hasn’t gone so well. In two games of the Pac-10 Tournament at Staples Center, he scored 31 total points but shot just 11 of 29 from the field with one assist and four turnovers.

Here’s a quick statistical comparison of Bost and Thomas:

• Bost: 11.1 ppg, 36.0% field goals, 34.2% 3-pointers, 3.6 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.52 assist/turnover ratio
• Thomas: 15.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 42.5% field goals, 29.8% 3-pointers, 2.5 apg, –0.95 assist/turnover ratio

More to come from here in Portland later. Until then, the Seattle Times has plenty about the Huskies, but here is a really good story from The News Tribune about the 1963 MSU basketball team.

Mullen Whipping Bulldogs Into Shape

March 19, 2009 by

Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen spent some time with us media folks this morning – via phone for me, obviously – and talked about myriad topics. One topic that kept getting talked about was the Bulldogs’ offseason conditioning. Mullen said there’s been quite a bit of work to do to get his players into proper shape. Take the defensive linemen. “I think the defensive line group was really out of shape,” Mullen said. “They’ve done a really good job of working hard as a group to improve.”

Then there’s tailback Anthony Dixon, who tipped the scales at 255 pounds when the offseason workouts began with Mullen and strength coach Matt Balis. Dixon’s now down to 235. “I want him to be as big and strong as he can be and being as fast as he can be,” Mullen said. Mullen also said the Bulldog’s toughness level is in need of improving: “It wasn’t very good, but it’s getting there.”

Mullen has a certain standard for his players, and a select few have achieved it: They’re part of what he calls the Champions Club, entry to which requires excellence in all areas on and off the field. Seventeen have earned that distinction so far, including linebackers Jamar Chaney and K.J. Wright, QB Tyson Lee, offensive lineman Derek Sherrod, and safeties Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner. “Those 17 have bought into what we’re preaching,” Mullen said. “What we need to do this second quarter of spring ball is double that.”

Will more buy in? Mullen thinks so, thanks to Balis. “Usually when they see him at first they think he’s a little nuts, but they do buy in and believe what he’s doing because they see progress. … As they saw their bodies change, see them physically improve, it made it easy for them to buy in.”

Spring drills begin Tuesday, and yes, I listed Bonner as a safety. Mullen has moved him from running back because of the depth there. “Whether we use him offensively or defensively, we need to find a place for him on the field next year.”

Some other highlights from this morning’s conference call:

• On status of Arceto Clark, Anthony Johnson and Maurice Langston: “They’re all suspended from the team until further investigation.”

• On WR O’Neal Wilder, who missed last season with injury: “O’Neal’s gonna be full go this spring. He’ll be full go for what he can do.”

• On running the ball: “We’re going to be a big running team. I think the misconception of the spread is you throw it, but the version of our spread offense is we’re going to be balanced 50-50.”

• On the offensive line: “One of the things we’ve got to do is place them, get our five best offensive line on the field right now, not being too concerned with who’s playing tackle, guard or center.”

2008 Bulldogs vs. 2009 Bulldogs; & Much More

March 18, 2009 by

Last season, Mississippi State won the SEC Western Division, made the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed, knocked off Oregon and then lost by three points to eventual national runner-up and No. 1 seed Memphis. The Bulldogs  lost Jamont Gordon, Charles Rhodes, and Ben Hansbrough from that team – their two best players and a solid shooter – and yet here they are again in the Big Dance.

This year’s squad finished third in the West and seemed NIT-bound after losing five of six games. But State won its last two regular-season games and swept through the SEC Tournament to earn the automatic NCAA berth as a No. 13 seed. Two different teams, two different paths, the same destination. So I asked Jarvis Varnado, one of two returning starters from the 2008 Bulldogs, how the two teams differed.

“I think we came together as a team. Last year we weren’t all together as a team,” he said. Then I asked him which team he thought was better. “I would say this team is hotter than the team entering (last year’s) tournament. We’re playing our best ball right now.” Interesting. MSU is currently on a season-best six-game winning streak. Last year’s squad entered the NCAA tournament having lost two of its last four, including a 64-60 setback to that Cinderella Georgia team in the SEC Tournament.

Now, that 2008 group certainly finished strong, pushing Memphis closer to the edge than anyone else prior to the Tigers’ loss to Kansas in the national championship game. But the 2009 Bulldogs, as Varnado noted, are more of a team. There are no real superstars like Gordon or Rhodes, who tended to dominate the ball. “This team, we’ve just got to work a little harder because we don’t have those great scorers like Charles and Jamont,” Varnado said. Certainly, MSU has grown a great deal over the course of the season, due mainly to an increased need for players to rely on each other.

I talked with Varnado about some other things, like the strained groin he suffered Sunday against Tennessee. “It’s getting better by the day,” he said as he rolled a rod covered in wide plastic wheels up and down his left thigh. His health will be key against the bruising style of Washington big man Jon Brockman (6-7, 255), who has a nice skill set to match his physical approach.

“I can’t match his physicality, he’s going to win that every time,” Varnado said. “I’ve just got to get back to my quickness, try to get around him, not let him get the ball in his sweet spots.”

UW coach Lorenzo Romar is quite concerned about Varnado. “Not that he’s a bully, but if you’re tentative at all with a bully, he’s going to bully you all night, and all year probably,” he said. Brockman essentially called Varnado the most well-rounded center he’ll have faced all season. “I’ve played against people who have a lot of skills he has,” Brockman said. “I think he’s got pieces from different players all put together. He’s unbelievably athletic, a great shot blocker, great timing, and he is unbelievably active.”

When MSU is clicking at its best is when both Varnado and State’s guards are putting it in the basket. Romar said the Bulldogs’ small lineup has many advantages, including the myriad outside shooting options. “They have about 500 guys that can shoot the three, and they’re all over the place. They’re not just spot-up shooters; they can put the ball on the floor and make plays,” Romar said.

Coming in tomorrow’s Journal will be plenty more coverage from Portland. The game advance will focus on the point guard matchup between MSU’s Dee Bost and Washington’s Isaiah Thomas, and I’ll have a lengthy notebook as well.

“Bulldogs Love Ducks”

March 18, 2009 by

That is the headline Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury urged an Oregonian writer to put in his newspaper tomorrow. Having traveled 2,000-something miles to get here, the Bulldogs’ fans are obviously going to be greatly out-numbered by the Washington faithful. So Stansbury hopes to recruit some Oregon fans to his side. It is not a far-fetched notion, not at all.

State AD Greg Byrne, who worked at both Oregon and Oregon State, said he knows Oregon fans who had MSU apparel rush-delivered so they could wear it to tomorrow’s game. “They don’t like Washington. And some of them are my friends who are rooting for us to beat them because of my friendship,” Byrne said. But it’s true: Ducks fans loathe Washington, even more so than they do Oregon State. Seriously. That’s kind of like MSU fans harboring more hate for Alabama than Ole Miss (which I have heard of). Oregon fan Jason Fuller, a Portland resident who was in the Rose Garden today to watch the Bulldogs practice, isn’t surprised by fellow Duck fans becoming Bulldogs for a day. “There’s a big disdain for the Huskies, more than the Beavers,” said Fuller, who was sporting a green ‘O’ hat and Oregon T-shirt. But why? “It’s more the arrogance of them, being in Seattle versus Portland.”

An odd little twist to this phenomenon is that MSU eliminated Oregon from the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament. No grudge is held, Fuller said. Quite the opposite, as he cited the Oregon-MSU football series earlier this decade as a source of goodwill between the schools.

So maybe the Bulldogs won’t feel so homesick when they take the floor tomorrow. It will probably still have the feel of a Washington home game, but there could be a stronger than expected Bulldog contingent, if only for a day. “It’s good to have people cheering for you rather than everybody booing against you,” MSU guard Barry Stewart said. “I know we’ll have to hit the floor and take the same approach, but we’d appreciate that help if we get it.”


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