Mississippi State already knew how important Lawrence Roberts will be to their success this season. The first four games only served to reinforce that.
The 12th-ranked Bulldogs hope to have the services of a completely healthy Roberts when they play their first game of the season at Humphrey Coliseum against Nicholls State.
Although they won their first two games without Roberts, a first-team All-America last season and a preseason choice this year, the Bulldogs (3-1) clearly aren’t the same team without him in the lineup. The 6-foot-9 senior missed the season opener because of an NCAA suspension over payment of a trip to an NBA pre-draft tryout, and missed the second game as he continued to recover from a broken nose and a bad fall in practice.
Roberts made his first appearance of the season in a 71-58 loss to No. 5 Syracuse on Thursday in the semifinal of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden and struggled, shooting 2-of-9 and finishing with nine points and 12 rebounds.
Despite playing with a face mask, Roberts looked better in Friday’s 67-54 victory over St. Mary’s in the third-place game of the tournament, scoring 20 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
“We weren’t sure how much Roberts would play and you could see he was not at his best, he still wasn’t comfortable,” Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said. “It’s going to take some time to get him back in playing shape. He’s not as quick and aggressive as he’ll be two weeks from now.”
Stansbury made the decision to switch to a zone defense early in the first half to neutralize the Gaels’ tall lineup.
“It took away the strength of their team, penetrating and driving the ball,” Stansbury said. “The first few minutes we had three or four fouls already and were down. We went to the zone and got some stops, which allowed us to get out and run.”
Winsome Frazier had 12 points and Shane Power added 10 and seven rebounds for the Bulldogs, who forced 20 turnovers and limited St. Mary’s to 34.0 percent (16-of-47) from the field.
With Roberts still working his way into form, several teammates have picked up the slack.
Roberts is the team leader in scoring and rebounding, averaging 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, while Frazier is second with 11.3 points and Power third with 9.5.
The Bulldogs are shooting only 37.7 percent (78-of-207) from the floor, but that has been offset by their defense which is holding opponents to 55.5 points per game and 36.9 percent (79-of-214) shooting.
Following an early return flight to Starkville Saturday morning, Stansbury’s team has perhaps 24 hours to prepare for their home opener Sunday.
“That’s four games in six days, but being in the Hump for the first time will be very welcome for us,” Stansbury said.
Nicholls State faces a very difficult test in its first game as it tries to erase the memory of last season’s 6-21 season that included a 1-15 mark in the Southland Conference.
The Colonels return four starters from last season, including senior guard Willie Depron, the team leader in 2003-04 with 15.4 points per game.
Mississippi State is 2-0 against Nicholls State.