STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State's off-the-court drama from last season is finally gone. The on-the-court talent remains.
Dee Bost hopes it stays that way as the Bulldogs take aim at the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence.
"We're further ahead than we've been in a long time," Bost said. "Coach doesn't have to stop and go over things more than one or two times. We're moving faster."
The calm offseason has been a welcome change after last season was marred by off-the-court issues, including a nationally-televised fistfight between teammates, suspended starters and ill-advised remarks on Twitter. Even with all the drama, Mississippi State finished with a respectable 17-14 record, including a 9-7 mark in the Southeastern Conference.
The decent results were a testament to the sheer talent the Bulldogs possessed.
Much of it is back. Bost is the most experienced of the Bulldogs. The 6-foot-2 senior point guard averaged 15.3 points and 6.2 assists per game last season after missing the first 14 games because of academic issues and failing to withdraw his name from the NBA Draft in time. He is just 65 assists shy of the school's career assist record.
He should have plenty of choices when making his passes. The Bulldogs' frontcourt includes 6-foot-10 junior Renardo Sidney, who averaged 14.2 points and 7.6 rebounds last season. He's joined by 6-foot-11 junior Arnett Moultrie, who sat out last season after transferring from UTEP. He averaged 9.8 points and 6.7 rebounds for the Miners two seasons ago.
Bost, Sidney and Moultrie will likely be joined in the starting lineup by senior guard Brian Bryant and true freshman Rodney Hood, a 6-foot-8 guard regarded as a top 50 recruit by both Rivals.com and Scout.com.
"For the first time you've got a lot of people who can create their own shot," Bost said. "It's helping us out a lot and taking the load off me."
As expected, Sidney's return has attracted the most attention. The talented big man has been dazzling on the court at times, but off-the-court trouble has followed him constantly. It was Sidney and since-departed teammate Elgin Bailey who got into an embarrassing fistfight during a tournament in Hawaii that was constantly replayed on television. He's also struggled with his weight, ballooning to over 300 pounds in the past.
These days, Sidney's listed at 285 pounds. That might be a little understated, but there's little doubt he's a more mobile version of his super-sized body from last season.
"I'm in the best shape I've ever been in," Sidney said. "I talk to coach Stansbury every day and he just pushes me and tells me 'We've got to have you this year. You've got to be more focused this year." And I think I've taken that role and am trying to make everyone around me better."
Sidney spent much of the offseason in Houston with John Lucas, the former NBA player who is known for taking in troubled basketball players and helping them overcome problems.
Sidney said Lucas spent much of the offseason working on his game, but also channeling his volatile personality. He said he spent lots of time in counseling.
"They taught me how to keep my anger inside and count to 10," Sidney said. "I'm not crazy, but sometimes I get overheated."
Sidney and Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury have had their issues in the past. Stansbury briefly suspended Sidney last season after a blowup during practice.
But both say their relationship has improved dramatically.
"To Sid's credit, he's not perfect, but he's made a lot of headway," Stansbury said. "There's no question the biggest thing is he's been the most coachable he's been. For the most part, he's been a good teammate. His conditioning is a work in progress. Is it better than it was? It is. Is it perfect? It's not. But it is better. Everything about him is better."
If that's true, Sidney could be in line for a monster season. He can be dominant on the court, with a sleek array of low post moves and a shooting touch that extends all the way out to 3-point range.
So far, Sidney is saying all the right things. And that has the Bulldogs thinking this could be a team that is a contender to go deep into the NCAA Tournament.
"We talk about it every day, whether we're at practice or at the house just chillin'," Moultrie said. "But it's not about talking about it. We've got to go out and do it. Prove everybody wrong."
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