When Kentucky plays Mississippi State on Wednesday, someone will be missing. Which is like saying the execution will proceed without that guy wearing the blindfold and smoking the last cigarette.
Rick Stansbury curiously retired after last season at age 52 (he's 10 months younger than John Calipari). He exited as the Bulldogs' winningest coach and — to hear some UK fans — the Southeastern Conference's whiniest coach.
Of course, he had a lot to complain about. Last season, State led a national championship-bound Kentucky team by 13 points at halftime. But Rodney Hood's injury late in the first half led to the Bulldogs' unraveling and UK rallied for a 73-64 victory.
Two years ago in Rupp Arena, State again led at halftime. But a technical foul on Stansbury in the final seconds of the first half helped the Cats rally for an 85-79 victory.
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These disappointments served as mere anticlimax to two crushing defeats within a month in 2010. In mid-February, State led visiting Kentucky by seven with three minutes to go. Thereafter, 10 calls went against State, none against Kentucky. "Eleven," Stansbury corrected last week. UK won in overtime.
Then in the SEC Tournament finals, Kentucky rallied to win again in overtime, this time with the help of a non-call (John Wall broke into the lane too early to rebound an intentionally missed free throw) in the final seconds.
Poof. State not only lost the SEC Tournament title, but also failed to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Incidentally, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive also fined Stansbury $30,000 for daring to say that the league had a vested interest in the success of mighty Kentucky rather than lowly State.
"Toughest loss in my 14 years," Stansbury said. "I don't think any coach lost more in one game than I lost, basically in three seconds."
That Stansbury came to symbolize ill-fated determination to beat Kentucky contains a bit of irony. He grew up in Battletown, Ky., so he knew and appreciated what UK basketball represented.
State's game at Kentucky this week does not bring back haunting memories as much as remind Stansbury of the standard he sought to meet.
"At staff meetings, I always asked. 'Is this kid good enough to beat Kentucky?'" he said. "That was our goal because we knew to win the SEC, you had to go through Kentucky. That's what we talked about."
Stansbury came close to that standard. In 14 seasons as head coach, his State teams won 293 games. Only Kentucky (370) and Florida (359) won more.
Of State's 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, six came with Stansbury as head coach and three as an assistant. Stansbury went to post-season play 11 out of 14 seasons. The last eight Kentucky-State games were decided by nine or fewer points (three went into overtime). In that span, UK scored 10 more points.
"We are at peace with what we accomplished here," said Stansbury, who still lives in Starkville with his wife, Meo, and their three sons.
This raises a question: Why isn't the man who ranks as the ninth-winningest coach in SEC history (293-166) still coaching for Mississippi State?
Officially, Stansbury retired.
"He talked about the need to step away," said State's director of athletics, former UK basketball spokesman Scott Stricklin. "Rick did a great job. He had a lot of success."
As a coach, it's always wise to stay one step ahead of the posse. C.M. Newton liked to note that he left each of his coaching jobs (Transylvania, Alabama and Vanderbilt) on his own terms. Stansbury's mistake may have been to turn down an offer to move to Clemson two years ago.
A mistake because there's an expiration date on each coach's tenure. At some point, fans want a new toy to play with no matter how much enjoyment they've had with that worn teddy bear. The trials and tribulations of dealing with Renardo Sidney, including the player's altercation with a teammate caught on camera, probably intensified State's desire for a new coach.
"We're all interim," Stricklin said. "Not just in basketball, you don't see guys sticking around 20 years. Ten years is an eternity."
Under new coach Rick Ray, Mississippi State will limp into Rupp Arena. Injuries, dismissals and other vagaries involved in a coaching change reduced the Bulldogs to six scholarship players much of the season.
Hood transferred to Duke after Stansbury departed. Point guard recruit Josh Gray requested a release and now starts for Texas Tech (9.5 ppg, 3.3 apg). McDonald's All-American Devonta Polland, thought by some to be leaning to State, signed with Alabama.
Carrying on with Ray as coach, State is 2-12 in the SEC. Stricklin noted the structure and discipline instilled by the new coach.
Meanwhile, Stansbury, whose final State team won 19 of its first 24 games, spoke a sad truth: Coaches don't get to fully enjoy their successes.
"You don't have time to sit back and ever reflect on anything or enjoy anything," he said. "You have things coming at you from different directions constantly."
Although not ruling out a return to coaching, Stansbury welcomed the respite.
"It's been a great breath of fresh air," he said of this season away from coaching. "It's allowed me to do things I hadn't had a chance to do for 30 years. Have a Thanksgiving. Have a Christmas. Take out the trash for my wife."
Still, that coaching urge remains. Of watching his young sons compete this winter, Stansbury said, "I've scouted a lot of future 2022 players coming out of the second and fourth grade. Now I understand why a lot of players today don't know how to play."Mock draft
In noting that four Kentucky players are projected among the top picks, college basketball analyst Dick Vitale mocked the approach many teams take to the NBA Draft.
"It blows your mind," he said.
Vitale saw how Nerlens Noel could be a top pick. But Alex Poythress? Archie Goodwin? Willie Cauley-Stein?
"It's going to take a long time before they're able to contribute as NBA players," he said. "They're not ready in any shape or form, but they'll be drafted in the first round based on potential."
Vitale held up former UK player Daniel Orton as a cautionary tale. Orton entered the 2010 draft after averaging three points and three rebounds as a freshman. He was taken late in the first round.
"And what happens?" Vitale said. "After threes, you're a forgotten guy."
Belated congratulations to Dick Vitale for being voted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. Columnist Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press will join him as this year's inductees.
Last year's inductees were Bob Costas and John Feinstein.
"I'm being honest with you, I never, ever considered myself a broadcaster," Vitale said. "I'm a jock. Somebody gave me a microphone to talk about the game I love."
On his blog for Vanity Fair magazine, James Wolcott noted how February usually doesn't seem exciting. That would seem especially true for UK this season.
"April may be the cruelest month, but February is the flattest," he wrote. "It stretches like a plank over the muddy patch between the New Year optimism of January and March's harbingers of spring, a brown-gray interval, and this February in particular has felt like a bus terminal layover."
Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy noted the parody, er, parity in SEC basketball this season. With the exception of Florida, of course.
"There's not a big difference between second and the bottom of our league," he said.
Mississippi Coach Andy Kennedy scoffed at the notion that the incessant speculation and numbers-crunching associated with NCAA Tournament bids and seedings means anything.
"People have to realize that only a handful of teams, if they didn't win another game, would be in the tournament," he said. "Florida is probably one of those (teams).
"Everybody else still has to win games."
After his 25 points led Ole Miss to an 84-74 overtime victory over Georgia last weekend, Marshall Henderson playfully gave reporters one quote.
"If it's all the same," he said. "It's Saturday night. I'm out."
When asked during the SEC teleconference Monday about Henderson's hello-I-must-be-going, Rebels Coach Andy Kennedy said, "Marshall and I have constant dialogue about making good decisions. He just has fun with a lot of things. Sometimes, I'm envious of his nature. He seems to be enjoying it a lot more than I am."
Point of view
Although Kentucky celebrated Willie Cauley-Stein's 20-point, seven-rebound performance Wednesday, Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings was not overwhelmed.
To explain Cauley-Stein's play, Stallings cited "the fact we didn't guard the ball. They kept breaking us down off the dribble and he was the recipient of lobs and easy point-blank shots.
"We would just stand behind him like he hasn't scored any points so far tonight. We let him back us in and jump hook us from 2 feet. He kind of did it however he wanted to. We could have asked him what his preference is: Do you prefer to dunk or jump hook? Other than asking him, we couldn't have been any more accommodating, I don't think."
All three males in the Paul Pressey family have the initials P.M.P.
There's Paul Matthew Pressey, Senior and Junior. The latter goes by the name Matt Pressey.
Then there's Missouri point guard Phil Michael Pressey.
To former UK assistant coach Herb Sendek. He turned 50 on Friday. ... To former UK basketball spokesman Chris Cameron. He turns 53 on Monday. ... To Billy Packer. He turns 73 on Monday. ... To Tom Heitz. He turned 52 on Saturday. ... To Chuck Aleksinas. He turns 54 on Tuesday. ... To Joey Holland. He turns 58 on Monday. ... To Rajon Rondo. He turned 27 on Friday.