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Weathering the storm

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Brian Bryant just wants to play ball.

And more than anything, the Mississippi State junior just wants to do it as a team.

Which is why through all the dramatic changes, headline-stealing situations and rollercoaster ups-and-downs this season for the MSU men's basketball team, the former Dougherty and Northwest Florida State Community College star guard is just ready to move on with the rest of the Bulldogs' season.

"It hasn't really been that tough, because, you know, everyone has bad seasons and everyone has good seasons and we just know that as long as we stick together, we can turn this thing around," Bryant, a two-time Willie Boston Player of the Year (2007-08), told The Herald in a telephone interview Thursday evening. "People can talk down about us if they want (after of all that's gone on), but we know we're better than that."

The turmoil Bryant, alludes to is no secret to anyone who follows Mississippi State basketball. Heck, even the most casual sports fan has heard about the Bulldogs' unusual troubles at some point this year:

*** Guard Dee Bost missed the first 14 games of the season. The first five were because of an academic suspension and then came a nine-game penalty from the NCAA after he failed to pull out of the NBA Draft by the deadline.

*** Forward Renardo Sidney has been suspended three times this season. He missed nine games after the NCAA ruled he received impermissible benefits as an amateur. He was also suspended one game after an "incident," according to the school, during practice and two more games after a fistfight in the stands -- during a nationally televised game on ESPN2 -- with teammate Elgin Bailey at the Diamond Head Classic on Dec. 23. The video was played around the country for weeks of the two teammates brawling against each other in the stands.

*** Bailey missed two games because of the fight with Sidney. Bailey then left the school days after the incident and transferred to Southeastern Louisiana.

*** Backup point guard Twany Beckham, who was averaging 2.9 points per game, decided to unexpectedly transfer in January.

"It's been crazy," Bryant said Thursday of the drama, which he witnessed firsthand in Hawaii as he sat a few rows behind his brawling teammates. "It was shocking, really. One minute we had just gone out to eat and they were talking to each other, (then they're fighting). We couldn't believe that happened."

Of course, one man's loss is another man's gain sometimes in the world of sports, and the 6-foot-3 Bryant -- who has played in all 23 of MSU's games this year, starting nine of them, while averaging 5.5 points and 3.5 rebounds -- may soon be asked to step up and lead like never before in the wake of the ongoing sagas.

Because they don't seem to be ending any time soon in Starkville.

The latest one involves Ravern Johnson, who was suspended indefinitely this week for complaining about his role with the team on Twitter.

The 6-foot-7 senior is averaging a team-high 17.7 points per game -- and was, at one time, one of the top three scorers in the SEC. In addition to suspending Johnson, coach Rick Stansbury banned the team from using Twitter.

Bryant, meanwhile, said he and his teammates have tried their best to weather the storm and stay focused on winning. And so far, that mentality has worked to Bryan't advantage. While he once was averaging in the neighborhood of 8-10 minutes a game, during the Bulldogs' last two SEC contests -- both wins against Arkansas and LSU -- Bryant's seen that number jump to an average of 19.

"It just shows us -- as a team -- that we have to step up and make plays," said Bryant, whose season and career high this year was 22 points against Nicholls State on Dec. 13. "Losing Ravern was bad for us because's he's one of our top scorers and a main guy. But we just have to step up. There's nothing else for us to do but step up."

In Bryant's high game of the season against Nicholls State, Stansbury got a glimpse of what the Albany native could do when given the chance. In addition to his breakout 22 points, he played 37 minutes, pulled down seven rebounds, blocked two shots, had two assists and two steals as the Bulldogs won, 67-58. The only player to outscore him that night was Johnson, who had 23 points.

Bryant also had big games earlier this year against Troy (31 minutes, 15 points, 8 rebounds, three assists one block and one steal) and against Alabama State (25 minutes, 11 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals).

There was a common theme from all those games, including the last two against LSU and Arkansas: MSU (13-10, 4-4 SEC) won them all.

"Yeah, I've started seeing more minutes," said Bryant, who added that Stansbury has been helping him make that transition smoothly. "Coach just tells me to go out and play my game and don't have any worries. He understands I'll make mistakes."

Bryant is in the Top 5 on the team in turnovers (27), despite playing less minutes than most of the guys on that list. But he said it's all a part of making that big jump from JUCO-level basketball -- where he averaged 20.5 points a game and led his team to a 30-5 record and a conference title as a sophomore -- to life in the SEC.

"It's been kinda hard, I guess. It's just takes time to adjust," said Bryant, who had no trouble adjusting to junior college after Dougherty, and was voted unanimously as the Panhandle Conference Player of the Year, as well as being named an NJCAA All-American. "The players at this level are just bigger and stronger, (whereas) at JUCO, they were smaller and quicker."

Bryant, however, has continued to show flashes of his old brilliant self from his Dougherty days -- when he used to pack the gyms around Albany as fans hung on ever dribble to see what show-stopping dunk or 30-point game he'd give them next.

When asked if he hopes to put that side of his game on display now that he's finally being given more of a chance on the big stage, Bryant could only laugh.

"Oh yeah," he said. "But more than anything, I just wanted to put my dribble down, get into the lane and create for my teammates."

And that's the key word at this point in the season, Bryan said: "Teammates."

Because with just eight scholarship players left on the roster, the phrase, "All we have is each other," has never been more true.

The Bulldogs' bad behavior has led to four starters being suspended for a combined 30 games -- an embarrassment for a proud program that's won five of the past eight SEC Western Division titles.

"I think it's safe to say I've never been around anything quite like this year," MSU guard Riley Benock said. "In the past, we've had little ups and downs, but never to this level. I don't know if it's a way of whittling things down until you get to the core, but it's been different."

Stansbury agrees, but doesn't want to dwell on the negative.

"There's accountability for your actions," said Stansbury, the SEC's second-longest tenured coach in his 13th season. "And then you move on."

Bryant sure wants to. And even if he doesn't play as many minutes on a given night, he's OK with that.

"My minutes just depend on the team and whether they're big or small," Bryant said. "If we need a small lineup, I may see more time, but if the team we're playing is big, I may see less. It's all good."

Bost likes Bryant's attitude.

"We really don't have any more room for error," Bost said. "We've got to grow up."

Mississippi State has basically no shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but is trying to get into some sort of rhythm before trying to earn an automatic bid by winning the SEC Tournament.

More importantly right now, the Bulldogs are just trying to find some cohesion as the season enters its final month.

Benock said everyone on campus wants to know the "inside scoop" on the Bulldogs' crazy season, but he tries to avoid talking about drama. After all, suspended players don't help "win games," he said. "You've just got to concentrate on the pieces you have."

As for Bryant? He's sticking it out. He said Thursday he has no plans to leave the Bulldogs amid the turmoil and plans to be around Starkville the rest of this year -- and his senior season.

"I hope to be one of the main players next year (as a senior), but it's really all about what's best for the team," he said. "Coach says we just need to stick together -- through the good and the bad. And, right now, that's what we're trying to do."

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Information from The Associated Press was used in this report