I hate the One-and-Done Rule. When it was first introduced, I never thought I would have said that.
I thought that forcing players to spend a year in college would be good for college basketball, and it would especially be good for Mississippi State basketball. I have never been more wrong. My logic behind this was three superstar, change-the-program recruits that Rick Stansbury signed, but none of them ever showed up in Starkville: Jonathan Bender, Travis Outlaw, and Monta Ellis.
When I found out that Mississippi State had signed probably their best recruit in the school’s history in 1999 in Forward/Center Jonathan Bender, I was pumped up. I was finishing up two years at Northwest and getting ready to transfer to Mississippi State the following Fall Semester. The football team had just made their first appearance in the SEC Championship Game, the basketball team had a legitimate All American candidate getting ready to come to Starkville, and the baseball team was showing no signs of slowing down under McMahon after taking over for Ron Polk. I thought I was going to attend the school at its peak in athletic prowess. So, I decided to watch the McDonald’s All American Game for the first time since Bender would be playing in it.
The game was played in late March, and Bender wasn’t expected to have a very significant role in the game. There was a ton of highly recruited stars playing in this game: Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Jayson (now known as Jay) Williams, Jason Richardson, Casey Jacobsen, and Nick Collison just to name a few. It was clear from the beginning of the game though, that Bender was on a mission to impress.
Bender got off to a nice start and was quickly the talk of the game. The announcers were overwhelmed with the athleticism and skill that Bender displayed. He was completely outshining everyone else on the floor. You could feel the excitement building throughout the state about the superstar that was going to be delivered to campus the next year. The hope quickly turned to panic though as one name begin to flash on the screen and get mentioned a lot throughout the game: Michael Jordan.
Jonathan Bender was having such a remarkable game that he was approaching the record for points in a game held by none other than Michael Jordan himself. When you start breaking records held by Jordan, people are going to take notice. And when the NBA was still able to draft graduating high school seniors, there were tons of scouts in the building and they certainly took notice. Bender would go on to break the record held by Jordan, and I knew right then that Bender was never going to make it to Starkville.
I hated that the NBA allowed players to bypass college altogether. If it hadn’t been for that rule, then Bender might have showed up in Starkville and changed the course of history for our basketball program. What I didn’t realize was the way the game of basketball at the college level was changing. Kevin Garnett was not the first to jump straight to he NBA in 1995, but there had not been many before him. It was rare at the time. Most players entered college and played for at least a year or two before jumping to the NBA. Kobe Bryant would follow suit in 1996, and the number of players who left straight out of high school increased. College coaches had to change the way they approached things. They still recruited highly touted high school seniors, but they knew they couldn’t rely on those players to show up. The focus became developing solid, fundamentally sound players who didn’t exactly fit the NBA mold, and turn them into better basketball players. This is where Mississippi State excelled and would thrive in the early part of the 21st century.
Entering the 2001-2002 season, the basketball team entered the season with moderate hopes of having a good season. They had a McDonald’s All American who made it to campus in undersized Center Mario Austin. Austin was on the verge of being labeled a bust after having a very lackluster Freshman campaign the prior year. Austin would get off to a good start in his sophomore season, and the Bulldogs would enter an early game on the SEC schedule against Kentucky with just a single loss to Cincinnati. Most didn’t make much of the early season success of the Bulldogs because their out of conference schedule was pretty weak. So it was shocking to everyone when Mississippi State pulled out the win in Overtime after being down more than double digits throughout the game. State would ride the talents of Austin and PG Derrick Zimmerman to a 3 seed in the NCAA tournament where they would be eliminated in the second round by Texas in Dallas.
They would follow a similar formula in 2004. After the horrible tragedy at Baylor when Patrick Dennehy was shot by a teammate, then tried to be covered up by the head coach, the NCAA would declare that any player on the team would be allowed to transfer and play immediately. Austin had made the poor decision to enter the NBA draft after his junior season. That meant Mississippi State would need a new presence down low. Lawrence Roberts would fill that need. Roberts would replace Austin and Timmy Bowers would replace Zimmerman, and the two would lead Mississippi State to arguably their best regular season ever. The team would only lose four games the entire year, were the Regular Season Champions, but ultimately fell victim to a hot shooting Xavier team in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Mississippi State seemed to have mastered a way to be successful in basketball. The game would change though in 2006. The 2006 NBA draft was the first year under the new collective bargaining agreement that players had to be one year removed from high school before entering the draft. I thought this would help Mississippi State immensely since they had lost out on three direct to the NBA recruits. Little did I realize, that most players who had a chance at bolting after one year were going to go to schools with big name coaches who could get them the much desired publicity they wanted. It would cause the SEC to take a step back, with the lone exception being Florida who had their own big name coach. Mississippi State would tread water in the SEC with no team having a huge advantage in talent in 2008, securing an at large birth with a no. 8 seed. They would lose to Memphis in the second round. They were expected to take a step back in 2009 with the loss of a few key players, but an unlikely four day run in the SEC tournament led to an improbable birth in the NCAA. It, unfortunately, would be our last.
The 2009-2010 season would usher in the John Calipari era at Kentucky. Many of the top One-And-Done prospects are now being drawn to Kentucky. Stansbury knew that he had to do something to try to close the talent gap, so he took a gamble. He brought in Renardo Sidney.
Sidney was supposed to come in as a Freshman in the 2009-10 season and team up with King of Swat Jarvis Varnado, and form the most dominant low post tandem in college basketball. There were questions about his eligibility, but everyone was assured that those questions would be answered quickly. A short suspension was probably coming, but Mississippi State basketball would welcome in a game changing talent right around the time SEC play began.
Things don’t always go as planned.
The NCAA dragged their feet on Sidney’s eligibility. With just a few games remaining in the season, the NCAA finally declared that Sidney would be suspeended for all of the 2009-2010 season and the first nine games of the 2010-11 season. In typical fashion for Sidney, instead of using the time to hone his skills and be a dominant force for the next season, he moped. He hardly worked on his game, worked out, and got grotesquely out of shape. The game changing talent was now a whiny shell of his former self.
The gamble that Stansbury made didn’t pay off. As a matter of fact, it probably cost him his job. The University had spent so much in time and resources on getting Sidney cleared to play, there was no way they could do anything to discipline him for any transgression that followed. Despite an embarassing fight between Sidney and teammate Elgin Bailey in the stands during a trip to Hawaii, Sidney’s spot on the team was secure. When you invest so much in one player, it makes it nearly impossible to remove them from the team.
The 2011 season would be a disaster. The 2012 season began to look promising as the Bulldogs won the Coaches vs Cancer Classic in New York and got off to a 6-3 start in SEC play. After an impressive win on a Thursday night game against Ole Miss, the Bulldogs were projected to be around a 6 seed for the NCAA tournament. The combination of Arnett Moultrie, Dee Bost, and Renardo Sidney was looking like it might be an unstoppable force. The underlying current that most fans weren’t paying attention to was a lack of discipline on the floor from the entire team, a byproduct of Sidney’s presence.
The trademarks of Stansbury teams was always tough, man to man defenses that relentlessly got after the opponent. Sidney was so out of shape that he only participated on the offensive end and was doing good to get more than 20 minutes a game. As he tired, he would start to foul so he could get back to the bench. His lack of discipline filtered throughout the program and the team only showed up on offense, something tht never happened under Stansbury until that time.
The wheels started to come off against Georgia, a team that struggled all year long to beat anyone. I was at this game as a birthday gift from my wife. The Bulldogs were simply outhustled. Georgia would be in control throughout most of the game, and forced into overtime, but Mississippi State couldn’t pull it out. They lost their next five SEC games, before winning the final two, and needed a win in the SEC tournament against the same Georgia squad to have any chance at an NCAA bid. The game played out in almost identical fashion to the one in Starkville. The Bulldogs’ NCAA tournament was sealed, as was the fate of Rick Stansbury.
Ever since the NBA adopted the One-And-Done rule, Mississippi State has struggled to get talent to compete. The team will take on Florida Gulf Coast tonight, a team that captured the hearts of many with their improbable NCAA tournament run last year, with talent that is lacking an ability to compete consistently with the upper echelon teams in the NCAA. I think Rick Ray is capable of putting together a team that is competitive, but until the players who belong in the NBA are allowed to start going there right after high school, I can’t see a time when Mississippi State will be able to hope for much more than a second round exit in the NCAA tournament.