Dawgs Call On Jackson

Jackson fans will get a chance to see the man behind the mask Wednesday, Dec. 22—or the man who was behind the mask. The Mississippi State men's basketball team plays Jacksonville State at 7 p.m. at the Mississippi Coliseum. When the Bulldogs last played in Jackson, in 2002, an overflow crowd of 6,592 watched Mario Austin and company crush Georgia State.

MSU, which began this week ranked No. 22 in The Associated Press poll, is now led by All-America center Lawrence Roberts. He played the first eight games of this season wearing a plastic mask to protect his nose, which was broken in preseason practice. Roberts played for the first time without the mask last Saturday, and he looked like a man who had been set free.

Roberts scored a season-high 27 points in the Bulldogs' 83-53 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock. "I'm 100 percent happy now," he said later. "Being able to play without it gives me a lot more confidence. ... It's one of those things, when you always play with something in the back of your mind, then you aren't playing to your full potential. It's just a big breath of relief being able to play without it."

Roberts came to Starkville in 2003 after transferring from Baylor, whose program imploded after one player killed another and NCAA rules violations came to light. It didn't take Roberts long to settle in at Starkville. He led the Bulldogs to a 26-4 record and the school's first outright Southeastern Conference championship in more than 40 years. Along the way, he was named the SEC Player of the Year and became State's first AP All-American since Bailey Howell in 1959.

Few expected Roberts to return to State for his senior season. He made himself available for the NBA draft, but pulled out after it became clear he probably wouldn't be taken early in the first round. But he apparently hasn't second-guessed himself. So far this season, Roberts is averaging 16.4 points and 10.3 rebounds a game.

Roberts' return made the Bulldogs a favorite to repeat as SEC champion and earned them a No. 12 ranking in the SEC preseason poll. It also made the Bulldogs a television darling. Up to 18 of their games will be on TV during the regular season, and they've already made ESPN and WGN.

Roberts' supporting class probably made his decision to return to Starkville easier. Starters Winsome Frazier and Shane Power are back, as is Ontario Harper, who missed last season with a knee injury.

Sophomore Gary Ervin has taken over at point guard. He appears to be the Bulldogs' weak link at this point, although anybody would suffer in comparison with Timmy Bowers, who was the winningest player in school history. Ervin doesn't always play under control. Perhaps experience will bring more maturity and better decision-making.

Coach Rick Stansbury has put MSU among U.S. elite teams thanks to both nationally ranked recruiting classes and serendipity (like transfers of Power and Roberts). He's locked up Mississippi. The big recruits he doesn't get tend to skip college for the NBA.

In his first few seasons, Stansbury was regarded as a good recruiter but a poor bench coach (a la Dale Brown). But he's turned that perception around, too. He had a record of 133-66 in seven seasons entering this week. He's led the Bulldogs to a school-record four straight postseason tournaments, including three straight NCAAs. You can't do that with just recruiting.


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