Physically and mentally tough. Intense. A defensive force. A rebounding terror. A nightmare for other teams to play against.
That is what the Mississippi State faithful can expect with Ben Howland running the men’s basketball program.
When word began filtering out Howland was likely to be Mississippi State’s next men’s basketball coach, what immediately popped into my mind was the Bulldogs are about to become a force in the SEC.
It may take a few years for Howland to get it going – he had a losing record in the first year of his three previous stops -- but having watched him work on a daily basis for six years, Howland will get Mississippi State to be a top 25 team in the near future.
I make the declaration not on blind faith, but after covering Howland for six years while I was at the Los Angeles Daily News.
His first season was a rebuild, and it was a team that did not fit his personality of being a grinder, of being tough, of knowing how to get up off the hardwood and scrap when things were not going well.
By his third season, he took UCLA to the first of three straight Final Fours, and while a huge influx of talent helped, the Bruins got there by defeating teams in the NCAA Tournament that were more talented.
Yes, he had Russell Westbrook for two of those Final Fours, and Kevin Love and Westbrook for the last one, and the roster was dotted with high school All-Americans, a nice by-product of coaching at UCLA in the rich southern California basketball talent pool, but his Bruins were so much more than that.
Ryan Hollins was best known for being a high jumper and a jump shooter, but under Howland developed toughness to play in the low post and carved himself a nice NBA career. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was playing at a prep school in Florida, and Howland was able to pry him out and get him to Westwood, where he flourished, and has had a nice NBA career.
Alfred Aboya was a glue guy who was at a prep school in New Hampshire and ticketed to Georgetown, but he wound up at UCLA and the tough, rugged, defensive player who once had a ball thrown at his face while playing at Washington and barely flinched.
Yes, the roster had its stars – NBAers Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Jrue Holliday came in highly touted and left early – but Darren Collison was a skinny kid from Riverside Country in southern California and Lorenzo Mata was a tenacious defender and rebounder in the middle.
Oh, and the Westbrook kid? He was heading to San Diego State, before San Diego State was good, until UCLA moved in late and got him.
What was strangely out of place with the way Howland’s teams played at UCLA was it did not fit the southern California stereotype, and it was not the up-tempo, run-and-gun style some prominent UCLA alums wanted. Howland went to cocktail parties and spoke with boosters, but it was always clear he would rather be watching film, or recruiting.
Howland’s Bruins played much like Howland’s Pittsburgh Panthers played. They were rough, tough, and played with lunch pails and sharpened elbows. UCLA used to be hated because they won national title after national title under John Wooden, but they became despised in the Pac-10 (yes, then it was the Pac 10) because of the mix of style and winning. There were times I would file a story two hours after the game ended, and as I left Pauley Pavilion, Howland would be leaving his office having re-watched the game a few times. The losing ate him up, and motivated him.
It went south at UCLA for Howland for several reasons, but mostly because of the ridiculous expectation level many UCLA fans and alums set. Those in the administration told me on several occasions UCLA didn’t hang banners because it got to the Final Four, it hung banners when it won NCAA titles. (There is no sign of the NIT title anywhere on campus.)
It went south for Howland at UCLA because he chased a national title, and while he did great things as a coach, the three Final Four losses came to teams with markedly more talent. He lost twice to a Florida team that had a trio of NBA lottery picks, and to a Memphis team led by Derrick Rose.
In the days I covered Howland, he brought in talented kids with great character, and after I moved to Scout, he went for talent and the character suffered, and it turned out to be volatile.
I bring this all up to paint a picture of what Mississippi State is getting Howland. He had talent at UCLA and Pittsburgh, but he also had an understanding of how to coach the talent, and how to blend role players into the mix. Kids with no interest of playing defense, or seemingly incapable of playing tough, learned to do so.
The two biggest criticisms of Howland were his defensive mindset stifled the offense, and he always seemed to be thinking about basketball, and he wanted everyone else in the program to do the same, and it wore on people.
Howland would not work at Kentucky, or North Carolina, because results are not all that matter there. Style is also important. Howland has taken an unconventional path in his coaching career, going from Northern Arizona to Pittsburgh (really, how does a West Coast guy coaching in Flagstaff, Ariz., land the Pitt job?), and then moving to UCLA.
And, yes, it ended badly at UCLA, but it does not offset the truth.
Howland took Northern Arizona to the NCAAs, then resurrected the programs at Pittsburgh and UCLA. He will win at Mississippi State because he wins everywhere, at places that do not expect it, and places that do not appreciate it.
He has a .661 winning percentage, and that includes going 79-59 at Northern Arizona and 89-40 at Pittsburgh. Howland builds programs, and Mississippi State is up next.