Outpacing Expectations | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Outpacing Expectations

When this issue went to press, the Mississippi State basketball team was in New York, preparing to play in the NIT semifinals. All of the state's Big Four men's teams enjoyed successful seasons. But it's never too early to start thinking about next season.

Jackson State
2006-2007 season: Compiled a 21-14 record, finished second in the SWAC regular-season race, won the SWAC Tournament and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years.

Jackson State's success wasn't exactly unexpected. The Tigers were the preseason favorites in the SWAC and they were led by Trey Johnson, the conference's preseason player of the year.

That said, Johnson made the Tigers fun to watch. The Murrah High alum finished as the nation's second-leading scorer (27.1 points per game) and made the collegeinsider.com all-American team. He scored 922 points, breaking the school record set by NBA mainstay and fellow Murrah alum Lindsey Hunter. Johnson capped the season by winning the Bailey Howell Trophy, given to the state's best college basketball player.

"To be a Jacksonian and a Mississippi guy and win the award for the best basketball player in the state is just amazing," Johnson told The Clarion-Ledger. "I've had some great teammates and coaches to help me get this."

The Tigers lose seniors Johnson and Julius Young, but the makings of a good team return, led by Jeremy Caldwell, who missed much of the season due to injury.

Mississippi State
2006-2007 season: Was 21-13 going into Tuesday's game and tied for the SEC West title.

The Bulldogs didn't live up to the expectations of their players and fans, who were looking for a return to the NCAA Tournament, but they certainly surpassed the expectations of experts who picked State to finish fourth in the SEC West. That forecast certainly looked accurate when the Bulldogs were 2-5 in SEC play.

MSU's late-season resurgence was fueled by the maturation of Howell Trophy finalist Jamont Gordon and the return to form of center Charles Rhodes. That is, Gordon finally learned that passing can be more valuable than shooting, and the Bulldogs started throwing the ball to Rhodes.

State figures to return almost everybody except for Dietric Slater. The returnees include three freshmen that played major roles, Ben Hansbrough, Barry Stewart and Jarvis Varnado.

MSU coach Rick Stansbury is on this season. "The experience (of the NIT) is invaluable," Stansbury told the Biloxi Sun Herald. "It brings exposure to your program."

Ole Miss
2006-2007 season: Finished 21-13, shared the SEC West crown and advanced to the second round of the NIT.

First-year coach Andy Kennedy sounded like a man who was ready for a roster overhaul after the Rebel's loss to Clemson in the NIT.

"I've got 13 scholarships," he told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. "I don't know how much more blunt I can be."

Kennedy's roster makeover won't be quite that drastic, but there will be plenty of new faces when Kennedy's second Rebels team takes the court next fall. Nine players could return, including seniors Dwayne Curtis, Kenny Williams and Jeremy Parnell. Florida transfer David Huertas will be eligible after sitting out this season. Kennedy has signed three new players.

The Rebels surprised everybody this season after being chosen to finish dead last in the West and getting off to a 2-5 start. But Kennedy isn't satisfied.

Southern Miss
2006-2007 season: Went 20-11 and finished fourth in the CUSA regular-season race.

After struggling in coach Larry Eustachy's first two seasons, the Golden Eagles were picked to finish 11th in the 12-team CUSA. Instead, USM took a major step forward.

Freshman Jeremy Wise largely fueled the Eagles' rise. The Murrah alum, who was among six newcomers on the roster, set the school record for scoring by a freshman and received the title of CUSA Freshman and Newcomer of the year,

"The future's bright, real bright," Wise told The Clarion-Ledger. "The next step's the NCAA Tournament."

Actually, the next step for USM is keeping Eustachy. His team's turnaround has seemingly turned him into a candidate for every coaching vacancy in the country. USM has offered him a two-year contract extension, the maximum allowed by state law, and Eustachy says he's interested.

Stay tuned, USM fans.

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