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Quantum Leap After escaping scandal-torn Baylor, Lawrence Roberts landed at Mississippi State and made the Bulldogs a surprising top 10 team

If you had asked Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury at the
end of last season if he thought his school could finish, in
2003-04, with the best record in the SEC for the first time in
41 years, he would have said yes. "I really thought I was going
to have the most talented, most experienced team I've had since
I've been here," says Stansbury, who is in his 14th year in
Starkville and his sixth as head coach. "I just didn't think
this was the team I was going to have."

Certainly the Bulldogs squad that at week's end sported a 21-2
record, a No. 7 ranking and a three-game lead over second-place
LSU in the SEC West bears scant resemblance to the roster
Stansbury had envisioned. Mississippi State does not have Mario
Austin, last season's All-SEC center who, despite promising
Stansbury otherwise, chose early entry to last June's NBA
draft. (He was taken No. 36 by the Chicago Bulls.) The Bulldogs
do not have 6'9" hometown hero Travis Outlaw, cultivated for
four years and signed by Stansbury; he, too, entered the draft
and now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers. Stansbury's team
does not have 6'10" Polish phenom Wojciech Barycz, who made hay
on a stellar European junior championship performance by
signing a pro contract with Italy's Benetton Treviso in July
instead of joining the Bulldogs, or 6'5" Ontario Harper, the
team's leading returning rebounder, who blew out his right
anterior cruciate ligament during a workout in September.

What Mississippi State has, however, is a player whose sudden
appearance last August has more than made up for all those
no-shows. Lawrence Roberts, a 6'9" 235-pound refugee from last
summer's tragedy at Baylor, has nimbly stepped into the
frontcourt void and led the Bulldogs to the school's best start
since 1961-62 while establishing himself as a leading candidate
for the SEC Player of the Year Award. "Lawrence is good at
everything," says Mississippi State assistant Phil Cunningham of
his forward-center. "He doesn't have many weak areas. The thing
that he gives this team that separates us from others is his
ability to defensively rebound." Cunningham's right. At week's
end Roberts was averaging 6.8 defensive boards, second most in
the conference.

Stansbury prefers to cite another Roberts strong point. "He is a
great offensive rebounder," the coach says. Stansbury is correct,
too. Through Sunday, Roberts was third in the SEC on the
offensive glass, with a 3.2 average. Overall, he was the main
reason the Bulldogs topped the SEC in rebounding margin (+7.0 per

Roberts can also score a bit. Despite having to contend with
heavy traffic in the lane, he was averaging a team-leading 17.4
points at week's end. (He had 13 double doubles, ranking him
fourth nationally in the category.) On the court Roberts goes
about his business with a quiet, Tim Duncan-esque cool. He shows
emotion so rarely that his outbursts--if they can be called
that--seem as startling as a swished half-court heave. In the
Bulldogs' 77-73 loss to hot-shooting Alabama last Saturday, there
were two such displays. The first, after an emphatic dunk, was a
leisurely swing on the rim accompanied by a slight snarl. The
second came at the end of the first half when, after Roberts made
a three-point shot to put Mississippi State up by a point, he
celebrated by ever so briefly lifting an index finger in the air
toward the crowd as he trotted off the court.

Says Cunningham, "We could tell from Lawrence's numbers at Baylor
[2002-03 averages of 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game] that
he was obviously talented and capable of doing things. We didn't
know how hard he played, how unselfish he was, how humble he

Of course, says Stansbury, "when the season began, there were a
lot of unknowns." The Bulldogs' one healthy returning starter,
6'2" senior Timmy Bowers, had been a third-team All-SEC shooting
guard in 2002-03, but now he would be taking over the point, a
position he had played only in relief. Senior center-forward
Branden Vincent had averaged 4.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in a
reserve role. Could he turn up his production? Junior
guard-forward Shane Power, a transfer, had been Iowa State's
outstanding defensive player in 2001-02, but he hadn't played in
20 months because of an injury to his left patella that had
required surgery in December 2002. And how would the veterans get
along with a heralded new guy?

The answers to all those questions were better than Stansbury had
dared hope. Bowers has thrived at the point, and at week's end
was averaging 4.5 assists (third in the SEC). He is one of 16
finalists for the inaugural Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of
the Year Award. The 6'8", 240-pound Vincent has turned into a
versatile defender and the team's second-leading rebounder (7.1
average). "He's our glue guy," says Stansbury. Since replacing
7-footer Marcus Campbell in the lineup after a last-second loss
to Kentucky on Jan. 13, the 6'5" Power has shown--if not all the
explosiveness he had before his surgery--a knack for picking up
the scoring or rebounding slack. As a bonus, 6'4" junior guard
Winsome Frazier, a wiry and occasionally frenetic shooter who
can't remember the last bad shot he took, was pumping in 12.8
points a game and leading the conference in steals (2.73 per

Most striking, though, is the Bulldogs' chemistry. The players
get along like old high school pals, frequently huddling off the
court to explore the recreational offerings of greater
Starkville, such as they are: watching movies, playing video
games, bowling. "This team really likes each other, and that goes
a long way toward being successful," says Power. Adds Cunningham,
"This is a very laid-back, down-to-earth group. If Lawrence had
been even a little bit arrogant, we could have had trouble."

Growing up in Houston, Roberts had plenty he could have been
arrogant about. In middle school he played first chair alto
saxophone in the All-City band. Until a growth spurt during the
summer before high school turned him toward basketball, he played
tennis well enough that one coach told him he had pro potential.
At Bellaire High, Roberts played on the freshman basketball team
alongside future Baylor teammate John Lucas III (now vying for
the Big 12 Player of the Year award at Oklahoma State) and future
Connecticut star center Emeka Okafor. "We were pretty good," says
Roberts, with characteristic understatement, about that
district-winning squad. However, the next season Roberts
transferred to rival Lamar High because it was closer to home.
"I've always wanted to go where I was needed," he says. "Even in
AAU, I wanted to play on a team that I could help, not just a big
team that everybody knows about. I always wanted to go somewhere
and make it my team. I see that as a challenge."

That's why he and Lucas went to perennial Big 12 doormat Baylor:
to build the program into a winner. In the aftermath of the
shooting death last summer of forward Patrick Dennehy, the arrest
of former Baylor teammate Carlton Dotson on charges of murdering
him, and the resignation of coach Dave Bliss after revelations of
improper payments, Roberts decided to transfer. Because the
circumstances were deemed extraordinary, the NCAA allowed Roberts
and other Bears to transfer without having to sit out a year, as
rules normally stipulate. Roberts wanted a place that could offer
him immediate playing time and a title shot. He also considered
Arizona and Indiana, but neither school seemed to need him as
badly as Mississippi State did. "The fit was perfect," he says.

A few SEC coaches have grumbled about that NCAA waiver--"How many
teams get an All-America in August?" says Ole Miss coach Rod
Barnes--but Stansbury was probably due a recruiting windfall.
Four years before Outlaw jilted the Bulldogs, Stansbury lost
Jonathan Bender, another Mississippi high schooler he had
carefully courted for four years, to the Indiana Pacers. "We're
the only team in America to lose two signed recruits to the first
round of the NBA draft," says Stansbury.

Even so, Stansbury has had four 20-win seasons, the last three in
a row--the first such string in the program's 93-year history.
With Roberts in the mix, this season's team could surpass the
Bulldogs' high-water mark, their 1996 Final Four appearance. "I
can't explain how badly I want that, how badly I want to win
every championship there is--SEC, NCAA," says Roberts. "I've
always wanted that, but I never really had the chance to get
there. Now look how close we are."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO PIVOT PRIZE A hot commodity as a transfer, the multitalented Roberts is a top candidate for SEC Player of the Year.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (TOP) NICE FIT Stansbury's team has bonded on the court and off.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB JORDAN/AP HODGE: Can you hear us coming?


Mississippi State is one of many surprising "State" schools that
could drive bracket-fillers into a state of frenzy during March
Madness. Here are the most prominent (records, rankings, RPI
numbers and statistics as of Monday).


OKLAHOMA STATE (6) 6 21-2 (11-1, 1st in Big 12)

TOURNAMENT PROSPECTS Versatile, hot-shooting Cowboys were
riding an 11-game winning streak--and demonstrating their Final
Four potential

NORTH CAROLINA STATE (14) 14 17-6 (9-3, 2nd in ACC)

[TOURNAMENT PROSPECTS] Effective Princeton offense (spearheaded
by silky junior forward-guard Julius Hodge) and win over Duke
could land Wolfpack a No. 4 seed, or higher

UTAH STATE (24) 40 22-2 (14-1, tied for 1st in Big

[TOURNAMENT PROSPECTS] Suffocating D that holds opponents to
57.0 points a game has Aggies a near-lock for an at-large berth
even if they can't win Big West

LOUISIANA STATE 24 17-6 (7-5, 2nd in SEC West)

[TOURNAMENT PROSPECTS] Achilles and ankle injuries of senior
center Jaime Lloreda are cause for concern for Tigers, who may
be sliding toward the tournament bubble

FLORIDA STATE 44 18-9 (6-7, 6th in ACC)

[TOURNAMENT PROSPECTS] Despite weak nonconference schedule,
Seminoles' lofty ACC pedigree should all but guarantee them a
spot in the Big Dance

KENT STATE 48 20-3 (13-1, 1st in MAC East)

[TOURNAMENT PROSPECTS] On a 10-game winning streak,
well-balanced Golden Flashes solidified their at-large bid bona
fides last Saturday by spanking Creighton 70-55

TROY STATE 75 19-5 (16-2, 1st in Atlantic Sun)

[TOURNAMENT PROSPECTS] With at-large bid a very long shot,
trey-chucking Trojans must beware of potential A-Sun tournament
rivals Central Florida and Belmont

EAST TENNESSEE STATE 84 23-4 (14-0, 1st in Southern North)

[TOURNAMENT PROSPECTS] Buccaneers almost upset Wake Forest in
2003 NCAAs and again loom as potential giant killers--assuming
they win their conference tournament

MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE 145 18-6 (12-2, 1st in SWAC)

[TOURNAMENT PROSPECTS] Delta Devils are defensive demons, but
there'll be hell to pay (and no NCAAs) if they don't emerge
from the SWAC tournament

COPPIN STATE 260 14-12 (12-3, 1st in MEAC)

If Eagles can't capture the MEAC tournament, even their games
against majors (Cincinnati, Missouri) won't sway the selection

RPI information: Copyright 2004 Collegiate Basketball News Inc.