November 11, 2010 6:18:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State men''s basketball team will face more question marks than certainties Friday when it opens the regular season.
The Bulldogs, who''ll be without suspended players Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney, struggled defensively in their exhibition win against Lindsey Wilson College.
MSU coach Rick Stansbury lamented the lack of defensive pressure on LWC''s guards, who repeatedly found their way into the lane and got to the free throw line.
With just a week to work out their post-Jarvis Varnado defensive strategies, Stansbury is keen to see the team adjust ahead of its game against Tennessee State at 7 p.m. Friday at Humphrey Coliseum.
Varnado, the Bulldogs'' anchor from a year ago, allowed perimeter defenders a safety net if they got beat off the dribble. His absence, combined with the loss of noted backcourt defender Barry Stewart, has forced this year''s Bulldogs to be more conscious of their defending.
Point guard Twany Beckham denied a lack of chemistry caused the Bulldogs'' lackluster play in a 75-66 victory against LWC on Saturday. Instead, he attributed the shaky play -- MSU trailed by four at halftime -- to the team''s first-game jitters
"Like coach said, we had guys stepping into new roles," Beckham said. "Having Jarvis was big. You could let your man get past you with Jarvis being back there. We''re just working on keeping point guards out the paint. I was kind of relaxing on and off the ball. This weekend, just being aware of when I''m off the ball just being aware of everything, that''s going on around me."
Stansbury said Wednesday that losing two of the league''s best defenders won''t affect freshmen Shaun Smith and Jalen Steele and junior college transfer Brian Bryant. Their adjustment will be learning the speed of the game at the Division I level.
"Most problems young guys have is when they don''t have the ball, they want to stand up and watch," Stansbury said. "That''s a hard habit to break, just seeing the next play happen before it happens. When it happens, and you see it, it''s too late. That''s just a learning curve and experience for guys to overcome that."
Junior center Elgin Bailey, noted as the team''s emotional leader, was demonstrative on the floor against LWC. His teammates, however, left a lot to be desired in defensive emotion and intensity, Stansbury said.
"There''s some things you''re gonna miss when you look at some of those people (Varnado and Stewart) personality wise," Stansbury said. "I don''t know if all those guys (current players) have a real tough demeanor about them. There''s some passive personalities some. We have to get better through that.
"Elgin''s the one guy I know that brings that mental grit and toughness you have to have out there, and he''s just struggling with what he has."
Complicating that learning curve, at least for the near future, is senior swingman Ravern Johnson''s status. One of two seniors with significant starting experience, Johnson is questionable for Friday''s game after suffering a leg injury Monday. Johnson said via Twitter he had an MRI Tuesday and later tweeted "leaving Columbus with good news."
On Wednesday, Stansbury declared the senior questionable for Friday''s game.
"Does he play Friday night? I don''t know," Stansbury said. "Is he questionable? He hasn''t practiced all week. He practiced Monday and got hurt. I''d say at this point he''s questionable."
If Johnson can''t play, Smith, who has yet to log a minute of college basketball, will replace him in the starting lineup. The Bulldogs could start three players (Bailey, Smith, and Beckham) who didn''t touch the floor last season.
TSU enters the game with a vastly inexperienced team coming off a 9-23 season. The Tigers are expected to have two freshmen and two sophomores in their starting lineup.
Bulldogs yet to announce signings
As of Wednesday, the first day of the early signing period, Mississippi State had yet to receive all of the National Letters of Intent it expects in the next week.
Meridian forward Rodney Hood, who scored 33 points in a win against Starkville High on Tuesday night, said he signed his LOI Wednesday morning.
Okolona forward David Gardner and Jackson Callaway point guard Deville Smith confirmed they''d signed their LOIs Wednesday afternoon.
Stansbury said he expects to sign three players for MSU''s 2011 class, but he left open the possibility of adding another player in the spring.
Due to NCAA restrictions, colleges can''t comment on recruits until the receive the LOIs.