They beat Florida at home, Tennessee on the road and boast three players who could one day end up on an NBA roster. The Mississippi State Bulldogs, though, realize they probably won’t receive a bid to next month’s NCAA tournament.
Not with a record of 15-13.
“Adversity,” coach Rick Stansbury said, “hits everyone sometimes.”
But rarely is it as ruthless as it’s been this season in Starkville. Standout guard Dee Bost missed the first six games because he was academically ineligible and then sat out nine more under an NCAA-mandated suspension that was imposed after he was late in withdrawing his name from the NBA draft last spring.
Also missing time was touted freshman Renardo Sidney, who was suspended for the first nine games following an NCAA investigation that revealed he and his family received impermissible benefits while Sidney attended high school in California.
Stansbury later suspended Sidney three more games, including two for a fight with teammate Elgin Bailey that took place in the stands during the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu over Christmas. The incident brought a tremendous amount of negative attention to Mississippi State’s program, which had already been under the spotlight because of the NCAA’s previous investigation into Sidney, which lasted more than a year.
Mix in the fact that the 280-pound Sidney often appears winded and out of shape, and it’s easy to see why some people wonder if Sidney is a bigger problem than a perk.
Twenty-four hours after his team’s victory over Tennessee – Sidney played just 10 minutes because of flu-like symptoms – Stansbury spoke with Yahoo! Sports about Sidney and his team’s season in general.
A: “We’ve gotten better. We’ve played well. We’ve just had trouble doing it for 40 minutes. We played really well against Vanderbilt and then let it slip away in the last minute of the game. We beat Florida and Arkansas here and then went on the road to Auburn. We had them down 19 points in the second half and lost the game. We led Kentucky most of the first half, but then they had a big two-minute spurt on us in the second half and we couldn’t catch back up. Besides that, for 35 minutes we were right there and had a chance to win at Rupp Arena.
“We came back home and beat a good Ole Miss team very soundly. Then LSU comes in here and beats us. We played well and shot 56 percent from the field. But LSU just shot the heck out of it. We lost Jalen Steele to an ACL injury in that game. He had scored 17 at Kentucky and had eight in the first half against LSU. Yet somehow, we went up to Tennessee and won without him and basically without Sidney. It was huge for us. It gave our guys a lot of confidence. We’ve been so close in so many games. Still, as bad as we’ve been at times, here we are, 7-7 in the league.”
Q: Why have you been so inconsistent?
A: “We had to plug two guys into our lineup at midseason. One of them is your point guard who had to miss 15 games. The other guy is someone who hasn’t played for a year and a half. All of those things have made it a very interesting year. Dee’s adjustment has been a lot easier than Sid’s, but trying to plug two guys in at the start of conference play was tough. Our first SEC game against Alabama felt like our first exhibition game. Right now it feels like we’re finishing up our December schedule. That’s how it’s been with this team. Hopefully by the SEC Tournament we’ll be in a good spot.”
Q: Renardo Sidney may be the most scrutinized – or criticized – player in college basketball. What’s he been like behind the scenes?
A: “He’s made improvement in every area. He’s in better shape, he’s a better player, he’s more coachable and he’s a better teammate than he was at the beginning of the year. But none of it is perfect. He’s gotten better, but there are a lot of other steps he needs to take before he’ll be where he needs to be. There is no substitute for the learning experience he’s had.”
Q: Can you be more specific about his “learning experience?”
A: “Before the season, you couldn’t have told him he was out of shape. In his mind, he was working harder than he’d ever worked. He had nothing to relate it to. His first failure in his life was the Alabama game here. (Sidney had two points against the Crimson Tide, his first SEC game). That’s when he realized, ‘Hey, I’m not where I need to be.’ ”
Q: What have been the challenges you’ve faced as his coach?
A: “It’s not just teaching him how to be a better player. It’s about teaching him how to be a better teammate. He learning that if he yells at his teammates, they’re not going to throw him the ball. That’s what he’s done most of his life. He’s been able to do that in AAU basketball. You also can’t turn and yell at the officials when you think you’re getting fouled. That’s another thing he’d done before he got here. Sometimes your body language speaks for you without you saying a work. You can’t turn and make gestures at fans. You’ve just got to block all those things out. He’s gotten better at all those things. He’s learning all this while operating under a huge microscope.”
Q: What’s your response to the people who wonder if Sidney is worth the hassle?
A: “Those are the people who motivate me to work with him even harder to prove that he can change, that he can make it. The easiest thing for me would’ve been to get rid of him a long time ago. The hardest thing to do is to make it work. The hardest thing to do is to make him better and to teach him what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. I’m the first person in his life that’s ever tried to hold him accountable for anything. I’m encouraged because I’m seeing change. If I wasn’t seeing any change I may think, ‘There’s no hope.’ But I’ve seen progress. He’s not perfect yet. I’m not going to take him from zero to 10 overnight. It’s a process. But in the meantime I’ll tell you this: He’s not a bad kid.”
Q: Do you think Sidney will be back next year? Or will he enter the NBA draft?
A: “The easiest route is to do what some people may want him to do, which is what he’s done all his life. To do something he’s not quite ready for yet. I’ve been in this long enough to know that you don’t ever know what people are thinking. I just know this: If he’s back, we’ll be tough. He’ll have some experiences to relate to. He understands what we’ll expect from him in the offseason. He’ll take his accountability to another level. He’ll get that body in shape and continue to mature. I still believe that at some point in his career he’s going to be able to reach all his goals.”
Q: What about you personally? How hard has this season been on you? Are fans upset?
A: “Any time you don’t win as much as you want to win, there’s always a situation where a few people are unhappy. Our history of winning speaks for itself. Adversity hits everyone sometimes. The thing that magnified everything was the fight and the fact that it involved Sidney. It got magnified because he missed the entire year last year, plus nine games this year, because of that NCAA suspension. But Sid had nothing to do with any of that. He got a black eye for something that happened his ninth grade year in California that he didn’t have any control over. You’ve got to have some perspective. As far as the fight … it was a bad situation, without question. Every team probably has probably had a fight or two over the years, but the fact that it was caught on television made it so much worse.”
Q: Now that all of that is behind you and you’ve notched some good wins, how confident is this team right now? There’s always the chance you could win the SEC tournament and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, right?
A: “This team still has a lot of belief and fire. We’re gradually getting better. There’s no question that we still have a chance to do something special.”