Depth in the post received a major boost Wednesday as Mississippi State signed versatile junior college standout Johnny Zuppardo.
The 6-foot-9, 235-pound product from Kiln, Miss., led Jones County Junior College to the national championship this past season, averaging 15.2 points and 6.9 rebounds as the Bobcats posted a 28-5 ledger en route to becoming the first school from Mississippi to win the NJCAA title.
Zuppardo prepped at St. Stanislaus, where he played for Jay Ladner, also his coach at JCJC.
“I think Mississippi State is getting a real steal,” said Ladner, who was named head coach at Southeastern Louisiana last week. “He’s a pleasure to coach, and he gives you everything you want from an athlete. He’s a 6-9 player that can handle the ball and step out and shoot the three. And he’s skilled enough that he can score with his back to the basket. He’s going to be a tough matchup problem for opposing bigs. I’m just tickled to death a Mississippi boy is staying at home.”
In his one season with Jones, Zuppardo had quite the year.
He shot 62.7 percent from the floor and was 43.1 percent beyond the arc. At the charity stripe, he connected on 80 of his 105 attempts, while collecting 32 steals to go along with his 25 blocked shots.
Zuppardo was named to the NJCAA All-Tournament and Region 23 All-Tournament teams while also receiving All-MACJC South Division first-team accolades. Later this month, he is slated to play in the NJCAA All-Star Game in Las Vegas.
“I am excited about Johnny deciding to join our basketball program,” MSU coach Rick Ray said. “His shooting percentages are off the chart. We needed a shooter in our program, but we got even more. We got a shooter that is a legitimate big who possesses a back-to-the-basket game and is tough. But more importantly, he is a proven winner. With the addition of Johnny, for the first time in my career here, we have an SEC front line that features size, length, strength, and what we sorely needed, depth.”
That depth now features Gavin Ware (6-9) and Roquez Johnson (6-7), along with newcomers Fallou Ndoye (6-11), Travis Daniels (6-8), Oliver Black (6-9), Demetrius Houston (6-7) and now Zuppardo.
There’s no question Zuppardo, who chose MSU over Washington, Wichita State and Tulane, was instrumental in the Bobcats’ historical title run. In the Region 23 semifinals against East Mississippi, he drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift his team to a 73-72 overtime victory.
Then in the NJCAA Tournament, he averaged 19.4 points in five games and totaled a career-high 32 points against Hill College in the second round.
In the title game against top-seeded powerhouse Indian Hills, he scored 10 points and grabbed seven rounds as the Jones rallied to win 87-77. He also had 19 points against Chipola in the quarterfinals, where Jones won 86-79 thanks to Zuppardo draining four free throws in the closing seconds to secure the win.
It was that same kind of play that led to success at St. Stanislaus. As a senior in 2011, he led the Rock-a-Chaws to the Class 4A state championship and a 34-2 record, while averaging 16.2 points and 7.7 boards. He was selected to the Mississippi North-South and Mississippi-Alabama All-Star games.
As a junior, he totaled 17.7 points and 8.1 rebounds.
Upon graduation he signed with Arkansas State, where he appeared in 24 games and averaged 1.3 points and 1.0 rebounds. His season-high of 12 points came against Lyon.
Following the season, though, he transferred to Southern Miss, where he sat out the entire year before reuniting with Ladner at Jones.
“He really grew up at the short time he was at Jones,” Ladner said. “He became a leader on and off the court and let other guys know what it took to get to Division I. He really blossomed and matured into a great young man. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around him for a long, long time, and I realized in junior high he had a chance to earn a college scholarship.”