March 2, 2011 9:28:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Wendell Lewis is easily the most athletic post player on the Mississippi State men''s basketball team.
Even with heralded center Renardo Sidney turning heads with his inside-out offensive game, the quick-footed, explosive Lewis can cause comparable damage on defense and on the boards. He just hasn''t showcased his skills consistently.
On Saturday, the 6-foot-8 sophomore offered teammates and coaches a glimpse of what he could provide on a nightly basis in a 70-69 win against the University of Tennessee. Lewis played a season-high 24 minutes and finished with eight points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots, and two steals.
He capped the performance by scoring the go-ahead basket with 3.4 seconds left. Last year, and even through portions of this season, Lewis would have finished the penultimate possession of the UT with a layup instead of an aggressive dunk, which helped send him to the free-throw line.
"A couple of players said the same thing, they were surprised I didn''t lay the ball up," Lewis said. "In the back of my head I was like, I wanted to lay it up, but I was like, naw, I need to go to the basket aggressively and get these two points. I feel like my game has changed from last year because I''m more aggressive going to the basket than last year."
Lewis and the Bulldogs (15-13, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) will play at 8 tonight (CSS) at Arkansas (18-10, 7-7) with second place in the SEC''s Western division up for grabs.
As a freshman, Lewis played only five and a half minutes per game and was sidelined by injury toward the end of the year.
Few first-year players are able to do what Sidney has done in his initial season of eligibility. He is averaging 13.5 points and 7.8 rebounds in 16 games, so MSU coach Rick Stansbury wasn''t surprised Lewis endured a tough freshman campaign last season.
"There''s a learning curve for everybody," Stansbury said. "He''s a young kid. You wish you could have redshirted him last year, but our situation wasn''t that way. Our situation wasn''t that way this year. He''s battle tested now. He''s understanding more of what it takes."
Though Lewis'' extended role at UT was due to Sidney''s illness, which forced him to miss the second half, Stansbury would like to see more from Lewis in the 14.3 he is playing per league game.
Lewis'' lack of tenacity has held back parts of his game, especially on offense, where he has a limited post-up game. His demeanor also has limited his minutes and how MSU functions with him as the lone post player on the floor.
Still, Lewis is shooting 57 percent from the field. He also is the team''s third-leading rebounder in conference play with 3.7 per game.
Lewis said he''s playing "more free" on the court and isn''t worried about making mistakes. Stansbury feels Lewis will get more touches on offense when teammates trust he can work for a high-percentage shot, or be an effective passer from the post.
"We utilize him by ball screening with his ability to beat people with his quickness," Stansbury said. "He''s as quick or as athletic than most of those guys matching up on him. When there''s a five guy on him, he''s quicker than all five guys. Utilize what you have until you can better at those things you still need to work on."
Lewis has seen minutes at power forward and center this season. He has provided stability at both positions considering the Bulldogs have little front-court depth behind starters Sidney and Kodi Augustus.
Last season, Lewis was limited to playing center because it was the position he played in high school. Playing power forward required more responsibility and action away from the basket.
"If we can get Wendell to play like that, that''s a huge for us," teammate Riley Benock said. "Just cause it''s a little bit of a mix-up from Sid, just being able to run more, get out in transition and block shots. It''s just a good balance there if you can combine the two."
As Lewis'' game has evolved, he''s earned more minutes at power forward this season. Stansbury said Lewis plays with more confidence and aggression when he can share rebounding responsibilities with another post player.
"We''re probably not as smooth offensively with him as a four," Stansbury said, "but the thing he gives you at the four is another good rebounder, another good big body going against guys. He''s been able to play both spots and handled that adjustment well."
Lewis isn''t a scoring threat off MSU''s bench, though he feels like his offense is expanding beyond making catches off quick cuts to the basket or finishing misses.
"Most of the time I''ve been playing with my back to the basket, but I have to change my game a little bit," Lewis said. "I have to play facing the basket. I''m trying to because you never know who I might be playing. If a guy''s slower than me, I can get past him quick. A guy a lot smaller than me I can be able to post him up, so I''ve got to be able to do both at the same time."
n In related news, senior guard Brandon Bolen was named Tuesday to the SEC''s Community Service Team. Several days a week, Bolen works with kids at the Starkville Park & Rec, mainly playing basketball and teaching them skills and fundamentals of the game. He also coaches a city league team made up of 12- and 13-year-olds.