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Stapleton provides athletic spark for Bulldogs


Ben Wait



STARKVILLE -- Xavian Stapleton rotated his body 180 degrees in the air and dunked on Missouri-Kansas City last month. 


There was a discussion between media members whether it was a 360- or 180-degree dunk. When Stapleton was asked he said, "I just call those dunks. That's for y'all to decide." 


Stapleton had two dunks against UMKC and had a reverse dunk against Alabama on Tuesday. Although the Mississippi State sophomore guard has been sidelined for a year and a half, Stapleton's dunks have been electric, but not as electric as he thinks they could be.  


"I could jump way higher. I don't know if I'll ever get that back or not, but I used to jump way high," Stapleton said. "By me not playing so long, my hand-eye coordination got a little slower so I've got to get that back up, like my ball handling and stuff." 


Stapleton will try to deliver another spark for the MSU men's basketball team (9-4, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network) when it takes on LSU (9-4, 1-1) at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in its first SEC road game. 


Stapleton spent his freshman season at Louisiana Tech, but he transfered after coach Michael White was named the coach at Florida in the 2015 offseason. He transferred to MSU in the summer, but he tore both his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee during a pickup game in August. Due to NCAA transfer rules, he already had to sit out, but the injury forced him to miss practice, which he still could have done. 


After recovering from the injury, Stapleton tore the ACL in his left knee again last March. He went through the rehabilitation process again and started practicing with MSU on Dec. 2. 


"I'm about 90 percent because back then I was younger. I was very athletic," Stapleton said with a laugh. "Now I've gotten old and I've had two knee surgeries, so it's different. 


"I don't think about it when I'm playing. I just go hard and try to do what I can to help my team win." 


Stapleton, who averaged 6.7 points and scored in double-digits six times in 36 games at Louisiana Tech, left the game against Alabama midway through the second half after he tweaked his left knee. He had an MRI Wednesday and the results were negative. 


Stapleton made his MSU debut Dec. 19 in an 86-44 victory against Southern Mississippi at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. He scored eight points on 3-of-5 shooting, including 2 of 2 from 3-point range in 11 minutes. Since then, he has played in three games, including starts against Morehead State and Alabama. Stapleton is averaging 6.8 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. 


"He's got a lot of energy, a lot of energy and a lot of toughness," MSU freshman point guard Lamar Peters said. "One thing with Xavian Stapleton you have to know, he's not backing down from anything. He's tough. He's going to give it his all, and he's going to go 110 percent every time he's out there. With him coming back, we feel like we are way better now." 


Although he has been on campus since the summer of 2015, MSU coach Ben Howland said Stapleton is just now learning the plays. After focusing on his rehabilitation, Stapleton has spent the last month learning plays and going over them with his teammates in practice. 


MSU second-year head coach Ben Howland is excited about what Stapleton brings to the rotation. 


"He brings us a really needed, added ability to play him at multiple positions," Howland said. "He can play and guard a three (small forward) and a play and defend a four (power forward). When you look at the size of the players we're playing against, it's a perfect time that he's back helping now because we needed that presence." 


MSU leading scorer Quinnndary Weatherspoon, who is averaging 18 points per game (fourth in the SEC), bragged about Stapleton's athleticism.  


"He just makes it harder in practice," Weatherspoon said. "He guards me and it makes it harder for me to score. He can guard Mario (Kegler) now, so we don't have to have Aric (Holman) and Mario going against each other at the four-position, so it's improving a lot." 


Stapleton averaged 20.9 points and 8.8 rebounds as a senior at Madison Central High School. He recorded 15 double-doubles, but he received very little interest in the recruiting process. 


His teammates are glad he decided to come to MSU and are already feeling his impact. 


"He has versatility, toughness, a lot of energy and, of course, you see the dunks that he brings," MSU senior point guard I.J. Ready said. "When he's out there, there's a lot more energy and quickness at his spot. When he's out there it's great for us because people are flying around everywhere and we can pretty much switch a lot." 


As Stapleton continues to get healthy, his confidence will continue to grow. 


"My confidence is building up the more minutes I play, the more games I play in, and the more practices that I'm getting better and better," Stapleton said. "Mentally it feels good. I'm getting my confidence back by playing those games. I think the biggest thing is keep getting reps, just keep getting reps, then my confidence will be back and I'll be going pretty good." 


Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait


Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.


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