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HATTIESBURG – Some things haven’t changed about 59-year-old Rick Stansbury in his seven years away from Mississippi State. For one, his voice is still high-pitched and exceedingly raspy after a basketball game, such as his talented Western Kentucky team’s hard-fought 66-63 victory over Southern Miss Thursday night at Reed Green Coliseum.
For another, his teams still experience really high highs and some disappointing lows. For instance, this year’s Hilltoppers have beaten such teams as Wisconsin, West Virginia, Arkansas and St. Mary’s. But in a recent three-game stretch Western lost conference games to Old Dominion, Marshall and FIU, blowing leads of at least 15 points in each.
They appeared to be on the way to losing another big lead at Southern Miss. The Hilltoppers led by 13, 34-21, at halftime, and then held on for dear life in the second half after the Golden Eagles found their shooting range. Had the Eagles hit their free throws – they were 5 of 12 – this would have been another disappointment for Stansbury and Western.
One more thing hasn’t changed about Stansbury: The man can still recruit. His freshman prize this season is just-turned-18-year-old, 6 feet, 11-inch Charles Bassey, who turned down schools such as Kansas, UCLA, LSU, Cal, Baylor and many others to attend Western. Bassey, an agile, well-muscled man-child scored 15 points and pulled down 17 rebounds against USM. Bassey may well be a one-and-done – more on that to come.
At least one thing has changed about Stansbury: He needed his peepers to read any of the the box score during his radio show after the victory. He frowned as he focused on the turnovers. “We had 11 turnovers in the second half,” he said. “That’s bad. But the good part is we probably wouldn’t have held on to win this game two weeks go. We’ve grown some. It showed tonight.”
Pre-season picks to win Conference USA, the Hilltoppers have now won three straight games to move to 4-3 in the league and 11-9 overall. They play at Louisiana Tech Saturday. Meanwhile, Southern Miss, which plays host to Marshall Saturday, dropped to 11-9 and 3-5.
A short history lesson for those unfamiliar with Stansbury, a Kentucky native, who was an assistant coach on Richard Williams 1996 Mississippi State team that went to the Final Four and then succeeded Williams as head coach in 1998. Stansbury lasted 14 seasons at State – a virtual lifetime for a college basketball coach. He had only three losing SEC seasons and finished first in the SEC Western Division four times. Obviously, he was doing much that was right. His teams made the NCAA Tournament five times, never advancing past the second round. He resigned from State with a 293-165 record, a winning percentage of 64 percent.
“Stans,” as he was known to State fans, was – and apparently still is – a recruiting master.
Of his five-star recruiting prize Bassey, he said: “He should be a senior in high school right now, but he re-classified and graduated a year early. He can run the floor. He’s got great hands, I mean, great hands.”
All that is why Bassey almost surely will have the opportunity to turn pro after this one college season.
“We’ll see,” said Stansbury. “He’s young but he’s such a physical presence. If he’s good enough to go high in the draft, then he should go. We’ll see.”
USM’s Doc Sadler called Bassey “the first sure-fire pro we’ve had in this league in my five seasons in this league.”
“The thing I love about him is that he plays hard even when he doesn’t have the ball,” Sadler said. “That’s something you don’t always see with young, talented guys with his size and ability.”
One wonders, watching the Hilltoppers, why Bassey doesn’t get the ball more. He only took 10 shots. He made seven. No doubt, one reason is Stansbury lacks a point guard to direct the show and ensure that Bassey gets his touches. Stansbury has used five different point guards this season. He’s still looking for the right guy.
Meanwhile, Stansbury says coaching at Western has been “like going home.” Bowling Green, Ky., is under a two-hour drive, due south, from Battletown, where he grew up.
After State, he took two years off from coaching, then served two years as an assistant at Texas A&M, where the Aggies immediately soared in national recruiting rankings. This is his third season at Western. His first team finished 15-17, his second 27-11.
“Our fans love good basketball,” Stansbury said. “We sold out our arena (7,326 seats) before the season even started.”
“We do love it there, and the Western fans love Rick,” said Meo Stansbury, Rick’s wife, who made the road trip.”
State fans will remember the three little Stansbury boys, who were always fixtures at Humphrey Coliseum, often accompanying Stansbury to post-game press conferences. They aren’t so little any more.
Isaac, the oldest, is now an 18-year-old senior, who plays basketball, made 33 on the ACT, and is being recruited by MIT. Noah, 16, is a sophomore, already starting on his high school team. Luke, the baby is now a 14-year-old eighth grader, nearly as tall as his father.
Stansbury has said the two years he spent away from basketball were two of the best of his life. He spent more times with his boys, traveled with Meo and re-charged his basketball batteries.
“Yes,” he answered, he still keeps up with Mississippi State. (He often uses Twitter to congratulate State teams in all sports.) After all, he said, he spent 22 years there.
“I’ve got so many friends there, our boys were born there,” he said. “Ben Howland is doing a great job there. He’s got a terrific team.”
Stansbury has a good team that has an opportunity to become much better if he can add a guard or two and keep Bassey around for another year. Stansbury plans to be in it for longer than that.
“I still love the sport, and I love being back home,” he said. “I’ve got a few good years left in me.”