Mississippi State coach Richard Williams doesn't want anybody to
get the wrong idea about Erick Dampier, his 6'11", 265-pound
junior center. True, Dampier loves to sleep. True, Dampier loves
to eat. But Williams disputes the rumors that Dampier was out of
shape when he was cut last summer from the U.S. team for the
World University Games. "Erick is never out of shape," Williams
says. "There's nothing lazy about him. During the season he's
always there, he's always on time, and he always gives you a
If there are any misconceptions about Dampier, they may stem
from something Williams said in jest during last season's NCAA
tournament, before the Bulldogs were eliminated by eventual
champ UCLA in the West Regional semis. After his team had
dismantled Utah 78-64 in the second round, Williams said that he
had been shocked when Dampier arrived early for the pregame
meal. "I didn't know if he was hungry or if he was ready to
play," Williams said at the time. "Usually Erick's not early for
anything. We had to rearrange his schedule because he couldn't
make that 8 o'clock class."
Well, as Dampier heads into his junior season in Starkville,
he's anything but a sleeper. Indeed, if he improves as much this
season as he did last, he could become the fifth player in
Bulldog history to be selected in the first round of the NBA
draft. (The others, for the record, were Bailey Howell, '59;
Wiley Peck, '79; Rickey Brown, '80; and Jeff Malone, '83.) Even
if he only matches last season's output, Dampier will be the
best big man in the SEC, and he'll challenge Georgetown's
Othella Harrington and Wake Forest's Tim Duncan--the two players
who beat him out for a spot on the World University team--for
"Erick is only now finding out how good he can be," says
Williams. "With his size and quickness, he's unlike any player
we've had in the 10 years I've been here. When he's playing
well, you have the chance to beat anybody."
This season Dampier will have to play well a lot of the time
because the Bulldogs are missing three starters--and the element
of surprise--from a team that finished 22-8 overall and tied for
first in the SEC West. As senior guard Darryl Wilson puts it,
"Last year we were hunting everybody, but this year everybody
will be hunting us." Still, Williams was able to trade on last
season's success in persuading some highly regarded prospects to
move to Starkville.
In 5'11" Bart Hyche, who set a national high school record with
1,361 assists at Winfield (Ala.) High, the Bulldogs got a backup
point guard who'll push 6'3" sophomore Marcus Bullard for the
starting spot. Up front, 6'7" junior Dontae' Jones, a juco
transfer, should win the small-forward job, and at power
forward, two freshmen, 6'10" Tyrone Washington and 6'8" Early
Smith, figure to press 6'10" senior Russell Walters.
Spelling Dampier will be 6'10", 240-pound senior Bubba Wilson,
who has been haunted by injuries during his college career. In
1991, when he signed with Mississippi State, he was considered
one of the best high school players in the nation. But on the
very night he signed, he had knee surgery to repair ligaments he
had torn during a high school game--an injury that still bothers
"Bubba's been a good player for us," says Williams. "If we
didn't have Erick, we could put Bubba out there for 30 minutes a
game, and he would average double figures in points and seven or
eight rebounds. I've tried to play them together, but it doesn't
work. We become too slow."
Speed is not a concern when Dampier is sharing the court with
the other Wilson, shooting guard Darryl. The inside-outside
combination of Dampier and Wilson is one of the most formidable
in the country. Any opponent that tries to pack its defense
inside against Dampier will run the risk of being riddled by the
6'1" Wilson, who will hold virtually all the Bulldog records for
three-point shooting by the time he plays his final game.
Unlike Dampier and 10 of his 13 teammates, Wilson is not a
native Mississippian. He went to South Lamar High in Kennedy,
Ala., and wound up in Starkville only because neither Alabama
nor Auburn offered him a scholarship. Alas for the Crimson Tide,
the explosive Wilson made it regret its decision when, in last
season's game between Mississippi State and Alabama in
Starkville, he canned a school-record eight three-pointers on
his way to scoring 35 points in the Bulldogs' 71-67 win. Later,
against Utah in the NCAA tournament, he erupted again, following
an eight-point first half with a 24-point blitz in the second.
"Wilson has great range and unbelievable confidence," Utah coach
Rick Majerus says. "He can create his own shot, he can catch and
shoot, and he knows how to use picks."
Wilson's performance last season is even more impressive
considering that from midseason on he played with stress
fractures in both shins. Williams even allowed him to skip
various drills in practice so that he could conserve his body
for games. "Unlike Erick, Darryl is a gym rat," Williams says.
"He stays in the gym so much and plays so hard that he takes a
pounding. He just won't slow down, so we have to monitor him."
Wilson says that the off-season rest was all the treatment his
legs needed. "I took a month or two off, and now I'm back to
normal," he says. "I've spent a lot of time working on my
ball-handling skills, but I'm not going to cut down on what I do
best, which is shoot the ball."
It's difficult to identify what the multiskilled Dampier does
best, but Williams would like to see him become as aggressive on
the floor as he is at the training table. "You almost have to
make him shoot the ball," says Williams. That sounds
suspiciously like a wake-up call, and Dampier's response may
well determine how close the Bulldogs come to the Final Four
--William F. Reed
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Already imposing and still improving, Dampier may get his hands on a title. [Erick Dampier]
THE DATA BOX
Coach: Richard Williams
Career record: 138-122 (9 seasons)
Record at Miss. St.: 138-122 (9 seasons)
1994-95 record: 22-8 (final ranking: 12th)
SEC record: 12-4 (tied for first in Western Division)
SF Dontae' Jones, 6'7", Jr.
Juco All-America averaged 28.7 ppg
PF Russell Walters, 6'10", Sr.
Shot 53.8% from the field in '94-95
C *Erick Dampier, 6'11", Jr.
Had school-record 78 blocks last season
SG *Darryl Wilson, 6'1", Sr.
Second in free throws in SEC (83.4%)
PG Marcus Bullard, 6'3", Soph.
Hit 40.9% of three-pointers
Jan. 9 vs. Kentucky
Wilson vs. Tony Delk in three-point showdown
Jan. 17 vs. Mississippi
Magnolia State foes meet for 211th time
Jan. 28 at Arkansas
SEC battle with NCAA-tourney implications
Jan. 31 vs. Georgia
Old Dogs take on hungry young Dawgs
Feb. 10 at Oklahoma
Bulldogs' first-ever trip to Norman
NEWCOMER TO WATCH
If the pet dunk of Bart Hyche tells us anything, it is that
necessity is not the mother of invention after all. Too much
spare time is. Hyche says his sprint-from-half-court,
round-off-into-a-backflip, catch-the-ball reverse slam was born
when "one day we were messing around and I just did a backflip."
Whatever, Hyche's dunk will never be necessary.
What may be essential, though, is for the 5'11" freshman to run
the Bulldogs. After averaging 25.9 points and 10.5 assists last
year at Winfield (Ala.) High, he may end up the starting point
guard in Starkville.
That is, unless he lands too hard after a death-defying dunk.
"Getting high enough isn't the toughest part," says Hyche. "When
I come down, I'm seeing stars."
Mississippi State fans can expect to see one this season too.