Mississippi State waits on potential stars
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury has waited more than a decade for an opportunity like this to come around.
Yes, it may have taken 11 years in Starkville and six early-round exits in the NCAA tournament, but this could finally be the year he ends the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 drought.
There' s only one problem: Two of Stansbury's highly touted recruits haven't played yet this season.
John Riek, a 7-foot-1 center from Sudan who will finally be eligible to play Wednesday night against Wright State, could form one of the country’s most intimidating defensive tandems down low alongside senior Jarvis Varnado.
“The speed of the game and the language of the game will be an adjustment for him,” Stansbury said of Riek, who played at Florida prep school IMG Academy last year after a high school stint at Our Savior New American in Long Island.
“There’s no question he’s a guy that can come off the bench and buy us some minutes when we have to rest Jarvis.”
With a talented three-guard backcourt featuring Ravern Johnson, Dee Bost and Barry Stewart, Stansbury doesn’t exactly need Riek to be a scorer in Mississippi State’s offense.
Instead, he’ll take all the rebounds, blocks and tip-ins that he can get from the 20-year-old freshman while Varnado rests on the bench.
And if it’s all the Bulldogs get out of Riek this season, that’s just fine with Stansbury.
“He’ll be behind, but he is big and long and we’ll let him do some things he can do well,” he added.
Because deep down, Stansbury knows that while Riek can help bolster his frontline, Varnado’s presence in the paint will have a greater impact on Mississippi State’s success this season.
Varnado, who's led the nation in swats the past two seasons, already holds the SEC records for blocks in a season (170) and career blocks (441). He is chasing the national record of 535 set by Wojciech Mydra of Louisiana-Monroe from 1998-2002.
But he’s also developed a competent offensive game to go along with his superb defensive skills, which could make him a first-round pick in the NBA Draft come June.
“It’s just not something you see all the time,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said after Varnado blocked seven shots in Mississippi State’s win over the Bruins in the Wooden Classic.
“He’ll end up being the greatest shot blocker in the history of college basketball.”
That’s saying something for a guy who's only 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds.
Maybe even more surprising is that he’s done it without a whole lot of national attention.
That’s because Varnado plays at a school not exactly known for its basketball prowess.
Mississippi State has only won six SEC regular-season championships in more than 50 years and been invited to the Big Dance just 10 times during that span.
Compare that to a Big East power like Connecticut, which has won two national championships in the past decade, and you see why former center Hasheem Thabeet stole a lot of the shot-blocking hype from Varnado during his three years in Storrs, Conn.
But the real question mark for Stansbury and the Bulldogs remains Renardo Sidney’s eligibility.
Sidney, a Mississippi native who played high school basketball in Los Angeles, has yet to be cleared to play by the NCAA due to amateurism issues that have been ongoing for the last six months.
And at this point, Stansbury isn’t even sure he’ll get Sidney on the court for a game this season.
“We don’t have him,” Stansbury said. “That’s where our thoughts have been. We gotta keep moving on without him.”
Sure, Sidney’s presence may still not propel the Bulldogs past Kentucky and Tennessee in this season’s SEC race, but Stansbury would have a team that’s capable of pushing the Wildcats and Volunteers in February and March.
“He’s a real talent,” Stansbury said of Sidney.
With him, the Bulldogs are a Sweet 16 team and maybe even an Elite Eight candidate.
Without him, they just may be another one of those previous Mississippi State teams making early-round exits in the NCAA tourney.
Of course, Sidney would also need to be in game shape and clicking with his teammates in the Bulldogs’ up-tempo style for his impact to be felt the most.
Stansbury, nevertheless, has liked what he’s seen in practice from the big man.
“He’s a guy that can easily fit in,” said Stansbury, who landed Sidney after cross-town rivals UCLA and USC eventually passed on him in the recruiting process due to the amateurism issues that have put his collegiate career on hold.
But for now, the timetable remains unknown.
“They are finally conducting interviews one-third of the way into the youngster’s freshman season.,” Sidney’s attorney, Don Jackson, told FOXSports.com senior writer Jeff Goodman this week.
“Sidney is serving a suspension without having been found guilty of anything.”
Stansbury, in the meantime, is doing his best to keep his expectations low.
“If we get him, it’s very obvious he’ll add a plus for us out there,” he said. “He’s another guy that can score baskets on his own or with the pass.”
So with Sidney’s status in limbo for the time being, Bulldog fans have to wonder just how good this Mississippi State team could be with the addition of the 6-foot-10 Fairfax High product.
It’s something Stansbury must wonder about, too.
Because the reality is, after more than a decade of almosts, the Louisville native finally has the opportunity to make MSU a national power again with Sidney’s help.
It’s just that he may never get that last piece to complete this team’s puzzle.