Analysis: Howland Wins First Bulldog Battle

He won’t put a team on court until November. He can’t even know right now the final roster, much less his starting lineup. But Ben Howland already has his first win as Mississippi State coach.

Today’s commitment and partial-signing of elite guard Malik Newman shows how fast and strong an impact Ben Howland will have on Bulldog basketball. A month after taking over Howland has scored in just about the biggest possible way. He has procured, potentially, the services of a player capable of transforming the program; and in the process beaten a bunch of rivals Howland soon will be coaching against in Humphrey Coliseum.

It must be noted that Newman, son of former Bulldog forward and proud papa Horatio Webster, was only signing scholarship papers today. This binds Mississippi State to the signee. It does not entirely bind Newman to the school as signing the national letter of intent does. This means he cannot now sign any aid papers with another SEC school. Which just happens to be where nearly all other contenders play, fortunately.

So Howland still has a little ‘recruiting’ remaining if Newman is ultimately to wear Maroon and White adidas gear. Regardless, chalk a big one up for the new Bulldog boss.

He has hit the recruiting trail at full-speed and full-strength. If spring signings go as intended Howland will be adding game-changers to a roster with experience and numbers which just needed a talent boost. Newman, rated by some services as the leading guard prospect nationally, will do that to the backcourt. Instantly.

In the frontcourt, Mississippi State is working hard on big forward Ray Kasongo. A Oregon signee who could not be admitted with transcript issues in 2014, Kasongo spent this past season at College of Southern Idaho. He has played at a variety of high schools and prep schools and lists his home as Toronto. Kasongo is also being recruited by SEC rivals LSU, Tennessee, Alabama, and Ole Miss.

The spring signing period runs through May 20. Howland inherits two of the three high schoolers signed by Coach Rick Ray last November in guard Quinndary Weatherspoon and forward Joe Strugg. Guard Tookie Brown has been freed from his signing by mutual agreement.

Adding Weatherspoon—who was Newman’s best competition for Mississippi Mr. Basketball—and Strugg were already improvements on the MSU roster. Newman though takes everything to a literally elite level. He is easily the highest-rated and best-regarded recruit, any position, to sign Mississippi State papers since Renardo Sidney in 2009. And Newman should be the best backcourt prospect since the recruitment of Monta Ellis in 2005.

Newman completed an epochal prep career at Jackson-Callaway High School with another 5A state championship, scoring 29.7 points in the process. He averaged 26.1 points in his four-season tenure, and became the first three-time ‘Mr. Basketball’ selection ever by the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

By not signing in November, he was able to star in a recruiting melodrama that has extended into the spring period. At various points Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana State have been regarded as ‘leaders’ with Mississippi State always the also-ran and Ole Miss hoping for a late outside shot. Howland’s arrival on March 21 and a quickly-arranged visit days later changed the order.

Mississippi State’s peers immediately recognized this, too. While none ceased courting Newman entirely, recruiting analysts’ stories showed State surging to catch the remaining leader and, some said, moving ahead decisively. This didn’t stop the news or noise.

Wednesday was particularly interesting and even entertaining. About the time Ole Miss coaches would have been arriving for a final in-home visit—with Howland due there in the evening—social media exploded with reports Newman had already committed, even already signed papers, and Ole Miss was dropping their recruitment among others. The sources of those reports strongly smelled of planted stories to either save face or muddy the water, or both. Newman’s father immediately responded that nothing had been signed by anyone.

Amusement aspect aside, such a public concession however veiled was a de facto layup for Howland. That he was getting the last home visit? That was a slam dunk of sorts. Plus, p.r. plays of this week should be welcomed by everyone in Mississippi basketball. The off-court rivalry has gone bland for a few years. Howland and Newman would bring back some needed flavor to do both programs good.

Keeping a truly national-level player in the home state? That counts, too. Mississippi State hasn’t exactly been a recruiting hotbed for several years. Then, the occasional elite prospect generally left the state, such as Devin Booker (Kentucky) and Devonta Pollard (Alabama). The last high-profile state player to sign with State was forward Rodney Hood in 2011, and a year later he was at Duke.

Newman joins a curiously short list of Clarion Ledger Mr. Basketball players who signed with/committed to Mississippi State since the award began. These were Quentin Smith 1996, Tang Hamilton 1997, Bender 1999, Timmy Bowers 2000, Ellis 2005, Ravern Johnson 2006, and Hood 2011. Of course this also can be a commentary on the ups-and-downs of in-state talent production over the years.

Either way, it’s too early to claim Howland will lock-up the state. Getting Newman’s signature is a great big step in that better direction though. And, it obviously marks a return of Bulldog basketball to the big recruiting leagues. Newman would be the first McDonald’s Game participant signing with Mississippi State since Sidney in 2009. Interestingly, Los Angeles resident Sidney was also recruited by then-UCLA coach Howland.

Other McDonald’s Game players who State has signed or committed were Jonathan Bender 1999, Mario Austin 2000, Travis Outlaw 2003, and Ellis 2005. Bulldog fans will notice three of those never played in Humphrey Coliseum. Bender, Outlaw, Ellis all bypassed college ball for professional careers.

That option ended when the National Basketball Association changed draft rules so players are no longer hired directly out of high school now. So Newman will be finding his seat in a college freshman classroom come August…unless he chooses to play overseas somewhere.

In that regard Howland is taking State back to its finest recruiting era, when the top competition weren’t rival colleges but professional basketball. And it is fact that without regularly recruiting elite-level prospects who could turn pro a college program can’t contend come NCAA Tournament time. Even coaches fortunate enough to develop a veteran lineup of good players need that game-changer to cut down nets.

While any new coach would have naturally made a run at an in-state star and son of a former player, Howland is different. He was not going to be passive about approaching a Newman…but he wasn’t going to come on too aggressive, either. Or appear desperate, is perhaps the better way to say it. Certainly Howland was not going to back down from challenging national names on what should be favorable ground for Bulldog basketball.

In this, Mississippi State finds another advantage having a coach who has spent a career in the fiercest talent-hunting grounds around, and bagged much more than his share. In fact, Howland might well own more total experience dealing with both elite recruits and major media than any major-sport coach in Mississippi State history.

Which is another way to say, Bulldog basketball has hired a big-time coach with big-time goals. Howland just affirmed this by signing a big-time prospect. Should Newman ultimately report to the MSU locker room?

Right. Big times are back at the Hump.

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