September 23, 2010 7:43:00 AM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- Players say they aren''t feeling the effects of all of the turnover and uncertainty in Mississippi State''s men''s basketball program.
The Bulldogs insist the offseason changes and continued rehabilitations from injuries haven''t dampened optimism, though from the outside MSU''s chances for Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournament success 2010-11 are unclear.
Jarvis Varnado, the NCAA career leader in blocked shots, and Barry Stewart, MSU''s all-time leader in 3-pointers, completed their eligibility at the end of the 2009-10 season, but that was just the launching point to an eventful offseason. Former starter and senior-to-be Phil Turner was released from his scholarship and will play at Delta State this year. Renardo Sidney''s eligibility case with the NCAA was finally resolved in April. The former McDonald''s All-American lost his freshman season and must sit out the first nine games of this season.
Then, the team nearly lost upcoming senior Ravern Johnson and junior Dee Bost to the NBA draft. Johnson withdrew by the May 8 deadline. Bost, however, missed the newly established deadline, which had been in mid-June. He remains in limbo as he awaits a decision by the NCAA about his eligibility. The NCAA deems a player has lost his eligibility by not withdrawing by the 5 p.m. deadline May 8.
Throw in longtime assistant coach Robert Kirby''s departure to Georgetown and three players returning from season-ending injuries and there''s plenty of potential distractions.
Sophomore guard Twany Beckham said the changes and questions surrounding the team have galvanized the players.
"It''s good that it''s happening right now because as a team all the changes and confusion will be out the window once we get started," Beckham said. "It affects us all because we''re a brotherhood. But it''s not in our hands, so we have to leave it up to God. As players, we just have to worry about what we can control."
MSU players feel the pieces for a successful season are starting to fall in place. Sidney''s saga with the NCAA is history, and last year''s injured trio of forward Elgin Bailey and guards Shaun Smith and Beckham are on track to be ready for the start of practice Oct. 15.
But Bost, who is enrolled in class and going through offseason workouts, has seen his appeal process linger longer than anticipated. The uncertainty of whether he''ll be able to play is the team''s remaining unknown.
Senior guard Riley Benock said the team has done its best to keep Bost in good spirits.
"When it first started coming out, everybody kind of checked with him and stuff," Benock said. "(We would) ask him ''Have you heard anything? When you''re expecting it?'' But there''s only but so long you can do that, and after it drug on so long you just kind of got to go on. He was supposed to know something one week, and then the next and then the next, and then he never heard anything.
"So you can''t just beat it in the ground. You kind of got to go on with it."
Varnado''s departure leaves roughly 13 points and 10 rebounds for MSU''s front-court players to make up.
Those numbers don''t factor in Varnado''s presence as the team''s defensive anchor. But with Bailey returning from injury and Sidney set to play after first serving a nine-game suspension, the forwards are eager to become a greater force.
"I''m expecting for all our post players to do their job as far as getting rebounds, hustle plays, and directing the team," Bailey said. "It''s something we really didn''t have last year. We had a post guy, but that''s all we had. This year, we''ve got three."
Benock said Sidney has improved his conditioning and has dropped weight after sitting out all of last season. He''s confident Sidney will be the force MSU expected to have last season.
"He''s an incredible talent," Benock said. "He''s just got to concentrate on putting it all together, as far as being in shape and the mental aspect. Skill-wise, he''s as talented as anybody in the country. When he''s on the block, he''s a load, and it''s impossible for anybody to guard him one on one. Whether that''s scoring for himself or creating for others, it''s definitely going to make our team better."
Bailey, Beckham on track
Life at the end of the bench was miserable for Beckham and Bailey last season as they rehabilitated from injuries.
As two of three players shelved for the season due to injury, Beckham, a point guard, and Bailey, a power forward, watched the Bulldogs navigate through the 2009-10 season with little depth.
Beckham had surgery to remove bone spurs from his hips, while Bailey had ankle and anterior cruciate ligament surgery.
Beckham, said in July he was operating at 85 percent fitness but is going through individual practice without limitations.
The ACL surgery hasn''t limited Bailey. He had the surgery after he hurt his ankle at the end of the 2008-09 season. He said his recovery and rehabilitation is ahead of schedule.
"My knee is like 65-70 percent, and I''m really not supposed to be doing the things I''m doing," Bailey said. "I do expect some pain and tenderness, but it won''t faze me. By the time practice starts, I should be like 90-95 percent."