Roberts, MSU cure each other's needs

Originally Published: December 17, 2003
By Pat Forde | Special to ESPN.com

John Maynard Keynes would love the Lawrence Roberts-Mississippi State story.

If ever there were a harmonic convergence of supply and demand, this is it. State was desperate for a big man after being pillaged by the pros, and Roberts was desperate for a high-level program after Baylor imploded.

The result is Keynesian kismet: The Bulldogs are 8-0 and Roberts is averaging a double-double -- 16 points, 11.3 rebounds. The old 'Dogs have happily accepted the new 'Dog's tricks. The only thing left is a top 25 ranking, which might not be too far off if State keeps winning.

"I expected it to be a harder transition," Roberts said. "But having it be such a great group of people, coaches and players, made it a lot easier. They've made me feel welcome. It's been real positive."

The free market system worked -- even if nobody could have foreseen this transaction coming.

The terrible Patrick Dennehy tragedy at Baylor and its tawdry aftershocks made Roberts a veritable free agent, after the NCAA gave he and other Bears immediate eligibility as transfers. Meanwhile, State was massacred in the middle by an offseason full of disappointing news.

Lawrence Roberts
MSU AthleticsLawrence Roberts gives MSU what is needs: an inside scoring threat.

Mario Austin unwisely went pro a year early -- and wound up in Russia, where he says he was virtually held captive by the team he signed with. Recruit Travis Outlaw went pro out of high school. And 6-foot-10 Polish recruit Wojciech Braycz, a sleeper Stansbury found at the same school as graduated forward Michael Ignerski, blew his own cover by playing so well that he was signed by Bennetton in the European pro leagues for $400,000.

Stansbury was on vacation at his in-laws' home in Virginia but trying to monitor events at Baylor, should State get the chance to recruit Roberts. (When you have three open scholarships and a double-double man could become available, you stay by the phone. Even on vacation.) When the NCAA released the Bears to transfer without penalty, Stansbury cut short vacation and went recruiting.

Of course, he wasn't alone. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound Roberts averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds as a sophomore. He once hung 30 on Texas and grabbed 20 rebounds against Oklahoma State -- not exactly slouch opponents.

Considering the numbers, and considering that almost nobody has as many big men as they need anymore in college basketball, interest was intense. Arizona and Indiana rose to the top alongside Mississippi State.

"It was the same as being recruited out of high school, but compacted into two weeks," Roberts said. "It was a quick-reaction thing. It was kind of crazy."

Amid the craziness, Mississippi State made the most sense.

"It was natural selection," Stansbury said. "I'm just looking for some bodies, and he got everything he was looking for: He could play right away, he's in a high-profile league and he's on a team with a chance to win a championship.

"Nobody could show him a better opportunity to step right in and make an impact. For us to have a chance to compete at the level we have the last couple years, we needed him."

Said Roberts: "You can't say no to that."

The next step was rinsing the Baylor trauma from his system. Bad enough to deal with total program disintegration -- at a place where Roberts was happy -- based on serious NCAA rules violations. Even worse when it's spawned by a murder, and the coach is encouraging others in the program to lie to cover up violations.

If you're looking for somewhere to get away from it all, Starkville ain't a bad choice. Major-college programs don't come too much more removed and low-profile than this.

"His personality fits in great in Starkville," Stansbury said. "This allowed him to escape a little bit from what happened out there at Baylor."

Starting class helped. Starting practice helped more. So did the games, since his parents have been able to drive from their Houston home for weekend home games. State also aided the transition by keeping Roberts from doing interviews for a while.

There's no hiding Lawrence Roberts now. He's not quite as high-profile as his aunt, broadcaster Robin Roberts, but every program in the SEC is well aware of what he and the Bulldogs have done this season.

Roberts' steady production of points and rebounds has been offset only by some lapses in foul shooting (he was less than 50 percent until going 7-for-7 against New Orleans on Tuesday night) and ball handling (he has a gruesome 33 turnovers in eight games, with just 15 assists). But his powerful play inside has taken the pressure off the perimeter game and made State very tough to defend.

Holdover guard Timmy Bowers, who averaged 14.6 points per game last season, has taken over as the team leader and is putting up a team-best 16.6 per night. Wing Winsome Frazier has stepped up to average 15 per game. Seven-footer Marcus Campbell is averaging double figures despite playing less than 20 minutes per game. Transfer Shane Power, who arrived from Iowa State, is chipping in 7.7, and Branden Vincent is contibuting 7.3 points and 6.6 rebounds.

Given all that, suddenly the losses of Austin and point guard Derrick Zimmerman don't look program-threatening anymore. Mississippi State could again be a 20-game winner, an NCAA Tournament team, a threat to win the SEC West, and a challenger to kingpin Kentucky -- thanks to last summer's fortunate supply-and-demand success story.

Ready for White's flight at Cincy

The Cincinnati Bearcats are undefeated and ranked 16th in America thanks to what they are billing as their BMW offense: Bobbitt, Maxiell and Williams.

Tony Bobbitt is averaging a team-high 16.3 points, followed by Jason Maxiell at 15.8 points and 10.3 rebounds, and long-range specialist Field Williams at 14.3 ppg. But while it would be easy to picture Cincy's BMW as candy-apple red or sleek black, what about White?

After playing Clemson on Wednesday, high-rising Florida transfer James White will be eligible -- and will add another dimension to a team brimming with physical talent. White's athleticism -- he was one of the most highly sought recruits in the nation, but shuffled back in the Gators' rotation and left early in his sophomore season -- would go well with the current firepower.

Plus, Cincy should have a healthier Robert Whaley heading into conference play. Whaley hurt a knee a couple of weeks ago and has not impressed coach Bob Huggins with his diligence in rehabbing and recovering. Should the mercurial JUCO center get serious about it and come back at full strength, Cincinnati will undoubtedly have the most complete and imposing lineup in Conference USA.

Games to Watch
Kentucky vs. Indiana in Indianapolis, Saturday
One of the best settings of the season: 20,000 fans in blue, 20,000 in red -- all of them disliking the other side intensely. Big question is whether Mike Davis can avoid losing his mind for the first time against the Wildcats. His record so far: three losses, three embarrassing performances.
Marquette at Wisconsin, Saturday
This has become one of the best in-state rivalries in America, given the successes of both programs in recent years. It means a lot to in-state recruits -- and to the two super-competitive coaches who pursue them.
N.C. State at South Carolina, Saturday
Gamecocks finally tasted defeat against Temple, but they could go 2-0 against the ACC with an upset of the Wolfpack.
Auburn at UNLV, Saturday
Tigers leave the state for the first time and bring their unbeaten record with them. If they return with it intact, they should remain perfect into SEC play.
Around the South

  • The rap on Florida before the season: too soft. Last week only served to reinforce that, as the Gators lost at home to Maryland and then were simply outfought at Louisville. Florida's attempts to rally against the Cardinals were repeatedly undone by the Gators' refusal to hunker down and guard tenaciously. Florida has much more talent than Louisville, but Billy Donovan still is well behind mentor Rick Pitino when it comes to getting his guys to play hard and together all the time.

  • Arkansas freshman Ronnie Brewer will have a unique experience Saturday: He'll play against the man who coached his father to great success in Fayetteville a quarter of a century ago. The Razorbacks take on Oklahoma State and Eddie Sutton, who was the coach of Triplets Ron Brewer, Sidney Moncrief and Marvin Delph when the Hogs went to the 1978 Final Four. Ronnie Brewer is undoubtedly making papa proud with his college performance so far, ranking second on the Hogs in scoring (12.8 per game) and first in rebounds (5.3) and assists (4.8).

  • Tennessee came out of his home-games-against-small-schools cocoon and traveled to Nebraska last Saturday. The result: a 15-point loss and a horrifying performance from transfer Scooter McFadgon, who was 3-for-22 from the field. Back to the cocoon for the Volunteers and their indiscriminate Memphis transfer. Citadel visits next.

  • LSU's dynamite interior tandem of Jaime Lloreda and Brandon Bass combined for 31 points and 16 rebounds in a wire-to-wire win over Utah on Tuesday night. Lloreda came into the game leading the SEC in scoring and rebounding, but freshman Bass leads the team in minutes. If coach John Brady can find some reliable ball handling -- the Tigers have more turnovers than assists this year, against light opposition -- LSU will be a major SEC West contender. Xavier Whipple and Darrel Mitchell are pretty solid with the ball, but freshman Taurean "Tack" Minor is the better talent -- if he can learn to distribute first and shoot second.

  • Alabama coach Mark Gottfried will tell everyone who asks that his team isn't very good right now, but he had to appreciate the late-game bailout Tuesday night from Kennedy Winston. The sophomore scored the final five points of the game to lead 'Bama back to a 76-72 win over Chattanooga. The lavishly talented Winston had 20 points overall and eight of Alabama's last 10.

  • Speaking of teams that need to work the ball better: UAB lost at home to Western Michigan 69-62 in large part by producing just eight assists in 23 baskets. It was the second straight loss for the Blazers, whose previous defeat at least made them feel good (it was by two points at Mississippi State). Sophomore Demario Eddins, expected to have a big year, scored only one point against Mississippi State but came back with his best game of the year against Western Michigan (18 points, seven rebounds).

  • In the never-ending quest to sell tickets, Charlotte had concocted Clay Aiken Bobblehead Night for Jan. 10 against East Carolina. Aiken, who will graduate from Charlotte on Dec. 20, rose to pop prominence by becoming a finalist on "American Idol" and has since released a double-platinum album -- vaulting him into the Cornbread Maxwell Pantheon of school icons. The 49ers are showing the love by giving away 9,105 Clay bobbleheads before the game against the Pirates.

    Quote to note

    "We were a selfish basketball team tonight. I have no idea why we played the way we played. Maybe the television cameras came on and our guys had their own agendas. I don't know. But you can't win big-time college basketball games playing like that."
    -- Memphis coach John Calipari after his team's 10-point loss at Illinois last Saturday.

    Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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