One-on-one With Ben Howland

Mississippi State men's basketball head coach Ben Howland talks one-on-one with Gene's Page.

Wherever you have coached, you have had success. What do you feel it takes to build a successful program?
"The lifeblood of every athletic team starts with your players. So, the number one thing is recruiting kids who are capable of developing into the level of players to compete at the highest level in the SEC. You look at Florida and Kentucky and what they have done over the last 15 years. It has been unbelievable what they have done under (John) Calipari and (Billy) Donovan. It speaks well of the conference to have teams like that.

"One of the reasons I was excited about this job is the fact that they have had success here in the past. Babe McCarthy is really the father of the entire thing. How the game changed with him puts him in the highest of esteem."

The players you will look for is likely the kind of players that got MSU to the Sweet 16, then the Final Four, the Erick Dampiers of the world.
"Recruiting has changed due to AAU. And I'm not sure Dampier was an AAU guy. It wasn't really around back then. Now, there are no secrets. So, it will be hard to have a kid around like him that wouldn't be highly sought after.

"The thing I love about Erick Dampier is he has his name on the building. He gives back to the program. And that is awesome.

"But yeah, I think we can win again at the highest level. I think that Richard Williams and Rick Stansbury did great jobs here. Stansbury had consistent success. During his tenure the only two coaches that had more wins were at Kentucky and Florida. Mississippi State was third. That is a real credit to him, his staff and those players.

"For me, it will be a culture where we are going to play great defense night-in, night-out. We are going to be a very unselfish team that is about sharing the basketball and being team-oriented. We will play really tough, hardnose, aggressive basketball."

How do you go about convincing the type players that you want to come to Starkville?
"I think we have a lot to sell here. Our facilities are phenomenal. I have been to all of the facilities in the country and this practice facility is as good as there is, professional or major college. This is an absolute gem. I also like the Hump. What you want to have to help you win big is a homecourt advantage. And that used to be big here. People in the SEC talked about that. And we are going to get that back. The key is to get the students excited again. We are going to do an unbelievable outreach to our students to make sure they really feel connected to our players, our team, our program and to me. Everybody else feeds off the enthusiasm of the students. Everywhere that I have been that has had a great homecourt advantage you have the students enthusiasm and that enthusiasm reminds the other fans of when they were students. Then, they get fired up and you have a great atmosphere.

"I really feel like I have hired a great staff. I believe George Brooks has been a great retention. He knows everybody in this state and in Alabama. And he is really well liked and respected. I also really like Korey McCray and what he brings from his experiences in Atlanta. And Ernie Zeigler is another AAU guy. That is where he started, Team Detroit. He has been a division I coach and has worked for me twice, at Pitt and UCLA. He has a lot of good relationships, is a very good coach and a hard worker. One thing that I have learned is your staff is everything. You are only as good as your staff. And Scott Stricklin has been great about giving me the resources to hire a great staff.

"The best indicator of the future is the past. And the past here has been very good at times. There is no reason why it can't happen again."

What brings in the great players? Is it knowing they will be developed and they will win no matter where they are located or how big the city is?
"I think being in Starkville is a positive. If I am a parent today with all of the drug problems, the partying and the emphasis on going to college to party for four years I would be concerned. I would want to focus on what is important which is to get a degree. It is a proven fact that a person with a college degree makes a million dollars more in their lifetime than someone who doesn't have a college degree. So, number 1 here is you have to have your college degree when you leave here. And number 2, we are focused on basketball here. And you can have a great experience here with 20,000 other students. It is a small college town, which is great. For me, it is a positive to be a college town. It is important to me as a parent to know that my son will be safe in a college town.

"Another thing that I have to sell is I have developed a lot of NBA players. That appeals to kids and to coaches. I know what it takes to be an NBA player. And not only to be an NBA player but to stay in the NBA."

And it's not just the one and done type players you develop. You developed a guy like Russell Westbrook and he wasn't even a 5-star recruit coming out of high school. Now he is one of the stars in the NBA.
"He is the star."

And you developed him from a 4-star recruit into the star in the NBA.
"I take pride in having coached him but he is the one who made himself into a great player. I am proud to say that I coached him and I think I helped him in some way."

What did you see in Westbrook that others didn't?
"He was a late signee. We were full of scholarships and his high school coach, Reggie Morris, Jr, whose father I knew real well, was great. He knew it was a good situation for him. I told him just wait, be patient and we will have a scholarship at the end. Jordan Farmar elected to go pro and that opened up a scholarship for Russell. And the rest is history.

"I'll never forget this about Russell. He was at Leuzinger High School (in Lawndale, California). I went to watch practice at 7 in the morning and he was the first one in there. He had the broom out and he swept the whole floor. The floor was really dirty and he swept it all very meticulously. Then, they went into their locker room and he is the first one back out leading his team. Then, you watch them play and he was so aggressive and so physical, just a really hardnose player. And he is a really great kid. When he did the (NBA) interviews when he was coming out they had him 17, 18, 19 (in the first round). But he wound up going 4th in the first round, not only because of how great he was as a player but also due to his leadership ability, what was inside of him. He is a phenomenal person. When I was at UCLA, Oklahoma City's trainer came in (for a visit) he told me that Russell was the leader in the locker room from day one (on that team). He loved to see that."

Another player was Darren Collison, another 4-star prospect in high school who you coached and who also made it to the NBA.
"He wasn't a highly recruited player. When you go back and look at Darren's info coming out you'll see that. You don't have to be a 5-star kid to make it. But you have to have the heart and drive and that is what Kevin Love has. What Russell has, what Collison has, what Arron Afflalo has. I was so proud of Jordan Adams the other night. I watched him score 19 points, a career high. I have been really blessed to have had a lot of great players."

Is it easier to see the toughness and heart in guys today due to them playing so many games, not only in high school but in AAU ball?
"It is better now due to you being able to have more contact with the kids due to the new phone rule. It was ridiculous for so long due to the one phone call a week. How do you develop a relationship or get to know a kid with one phone call a week? Now you get to know kids a lot better because you can talk to them."

Speaking of recruiting, what has been the reception among recruits when you talk to them?
"It has been really good. That is due to my staff and the players who are already here. Our nucleus will be a our senior class, three of whom are Stansbury recruits. Plus, you have Travis Daniels, who was recruited by Rick Ray and his staff. Those four guys are the kid to this coming season. Plus, whoever we add to it will make it a very competitive group in year one."

Have you been able to do much with the current players?
"I have. I like our kids. First of all, they are really coachable. They love to be coached. They are really trying hard to listen and learn. They have a great attitude. They are good kids."

A young guy that I like is Demetrius Houston. What are your thoughts about him?
"I think he can be a really good player. We have to work with him on his shot. All summer will be just breaking down his shot. And he has to get stronger. So, he will need to work hard in the weight room all summer. I think he has some real potential. I am excited about him."

You mentioned Travis Daniels. I saw him in junior college and he seemed to be under utilized at his school. But I really liked what I saw from him.
"I really like him. I am really encouraged about him. I think he is going to be a key guy for us. He played 20 minutes a game for us this season. He shot 40% from the field, 29% from the three. He probably took too many threes because almost half of his shots were threes. But I think he is a very good 17, 18-foot jump shooter. I do think he will get better shooting the three because he will get better at using his legs going up and down straight. He is a pretty good rebounder."

One of those other seniors is Craig Sword. He is a tremendous athlete. What are your thoughts about him?
"I have only seen him on film because he is still recovering from his back. We are really taking him slow because he is having some pain there. But I think he has a really bright future. He had a really great year this past season. But I think he can become a much better defender. One thing about the (NBA) is if you can't defend your own position, then you can't play in the league. The defensive rules are such in the NBA that you are more on your own. So, you have to be really good at one-on-one defending. That is something that we really preach."

What are your thoughts about Fallou Ndoye?
"He runs the court good. His biggest concern is catching the ball. He doesn't have great hands. So, that is something that he needs to continue to work on. I also think he needs to continue to work on his strength. But he has a long body. I would think that he would have blocked more shots than he did."

I.J. Ready is your point guard. What are your thoughts about him?
"I.J. is a very good shooter. He is a smart player, a good leader. He is a bright kid. He is a good learner. His dad coaches, so he has been around basketball his whole life. I really like I.J.

"And I really like Fred Thomas. I think Fred is going to help us. I think he is going to have a really good year. They say he is up and down but I like Fred. I like him because he can shoot. I also like him as a kid. He has been great to work with. He is very receptive to coaching and has a good attitude."

What do you like about Oliver Black?
"What I like about Oliver is that he plays really hard. He really wants it. He is aggressive and he is coachable. He has to be a good defender, a good rebounder, a good screener. He is a guy who will need to get second shots and put them back in. He has to get better at passing the ball. We have to work on his shooting. Working with him, I noticed that he had the ball on the palm of his hand. You don't control the ball with your palm. You control it with your fingers."

As a team, what did you see that you feel needs to be fixed for your team to be successful?
"One of the problems that we had a year ago, based on the stats, is we had way too many turnovers. We had 8 assists per game and 15 turnovers. We have to flip that."

How do you do that?
"Just by simplifying things and working on fundamentals. We have worked on passing, bending your knees, just simple fundamental things. Basketball is a game of repetition to get the proper fundamental."

Their offensive percentages weren't very good. How will you go about making that better?
"One of the keys is getting easy shots. You get them in transition and you get them off of forced turnovers, get them on second shots. We have to get some easy baskets. So, we are going to push the ball on every made and missed shot.

"My last year at UCLA we led the conference in scoring. And we really made a concerted effort to push the ball every single time in transition. And you look at our talent here. Demetrius Houston will be great in transition. Craig (Sword) will be great. Fred (Thomas) will be great. Travis (Daniels) will be very good at getting out in transition. Those guys will be really good at running the floor. But we also still need to be able to execute in the half court offense because good teams work very hard to take away your ability to score in transition. We are going to be committed to playing really good transition defense."

Of your signees, I think Quinndary Weatherspoon could be similar to the type players that you just mentioned.
"He is going to be a good player. I have watched him on film and really like him. I also like him as a kid. He comes from a good program. He is a kid that I am really excited about. I believe he has a bright future."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the website, the source for Mississippi State sports on sports network. You can contact him by emailing

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