"It's An Exciting Time For The Bulldogs"

No, he was not speaking directly of himself when Ben Howland said “We have some of the best coaches in the country in the SEC.” But if the new Bulldog boss had listed himself among the elite nobody would have argued.

Besides, plenty of Howland’s new peers in his new league were willing to promote him during today’s SEC basketball summer teleconference. This further affirms the Mississippi State mindset ever since Ben Howland was introduced at Humphrey Coliseum. Bulldog basketball is in the hands of a coach who owns quiet likely the best resume ever by a MSU mentor. Maybe in any State sport for that matter.

“I’m excited number one to be here,” said Howland, in introducing himself to lots of league and national media.

There was a lot of intro’ing going on Monday morning of course. The ‘theme’ of this year’s summer press phone-fest was obvious. There are four new SEC head coaches. Florida, Tennessee, and Alabama are under fresh management along with Mississippi State.

In the past such turnover would mean a strong shade of ‘green’ around the league. And given the SEC’s stretch of under-achieving on the national stage for the past several seasons the turnover would normally be interpreted outside as proof of impotence on the hardwood.

Not this time.

Commissioner Greg Sankey, himself new to the top SEC job though an established figure in the league, used the teleconference to express justified pride in how this league has upgraded its sideline stature. Yes, even though Florida lost a two-time NCAA title coach—“Which I know because both years we (UCLA) lost to them in the national championship!” Howland reminded—they were able to bring in one of the profession’s hottest young names in Mike White.

“He turned down other high-major jobs a year ago,” Howland said. “He has a great pedigree and knows the South.” MSU’s coach is more familiar with the more veteran hires, such as Rick Barnes. Who, as Howland said, only took Texas to the NCAA Tourney 16 of 17 seasons.

”Which is why he was swooped-up by Tennessee about a day after the job opened up.” Then there’s Avery Johnson now calling Tuscaloosa home. “Avery has been to the finals of the NBA. When you look at what he accomplished as a player and a coach, it’s phenomenal for our league to have a coach of his stature joining the league.”

Modesty forbade Howland blowing his own horn, other than of course mentioning two of the three-straight Final Fours he coached UCLA to. No problem. The SEC coaching club, especially those weary of hearing the league dismissed by basketball experts everywhere, sounded like a mutual admiration club today.

Objectively, this current lineup of 14 coaches have 54 combined seasons in the league. But, just four programs—Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Georgia—account together for 37 of those seasons. None of the other ten have more than four seasons. And four of these men are new to their jobs for 2015-16.

Howland of course is one of that quartet. “It’s exciting coming in with a great group of coaches,” Howland agreed. “And there’s already a great group here. I was reading some things that have been accomplished by all the coaches in our league, it’s amazing.”

Nobody has used that word about Bulldog basketball for several seasons now. A six-year absence from NCAA action reminds how far the program has fallen. Fortunately there is more reason for Mississippi State optimism again beyond the hiring of a proven head college coach. Sure, having Howland take over is vital.

But so is his having players to coach. Which Howland said are here.

“I think we have a good nucleus returning from last year, led by our four seniors.” Four varsity seniors, he meant, in center Craig Sword, forward Travis Daniels, and guards Craig Sword and Fred Thomas. Those are the core Howland has begun building around.

“Gavin and Craig were the two leading scorers on the team,” he said. “And Johnny Zuppardo, who was supposed to play this past season and blew out his knee.” Juco transfer Zuppardo is on schedule for full-speed by the fall semester and participating in summer workouts and drills.

Also, “IJ Ready and Fallou Ndoye have done a good job getting ready for the season and are working hard on preparing for the year,” Howland said.

But naturally the intense attention falls to the newest Bulldogs. Howland could not have begun his tenure in a bigger or better way than convincing state prep star Malik Newman to stay home and be a Bulldog. The nation’s elite guard prospect in many rankings is safely on campus, along with classmates shooting guard Quindarry Weatherspoon and forward Aric Holman.

Based purely on recruiting rep, there may not be a better trio of rookies signed by Mississippi State in decades. Howland ‘inherited’ Weatherspoon to be sure. But Newman was a deal sealed by Howland taking over. And Holman was a more interesting ‘win’ for the new coach as Howland had to beat regional rivals on the last day of spring signing period. Which he did.

“Obviously with the addition of Malik Newman and Q Weatherspoon and Aric Holman, I really like our freshman class. And I think they will all be contributors to this team.”

The class is not quite complete, too. “We have one young man who couldn’t get his transcript in time for the eligibility center,” Howland said. That is freshman frontcourt player Joe Strugg, also an inherited signee. Strugg could not get cleared in time for the June semester. Today Howland reported he expects Strugg, though without using the name, to enroll on July 6 for the second summer session.

There is one other new face in the program. Howland ‘recruited’ David Deets to replace long-time and much-loved strength coach Richard Akins, who retired recently. Deets by the way oversees both the Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs in the Mize Pavilion weightroom.

“He’s done a phenomenal job with our team in terms of performance and strength training. And overseeing our diet because that’s such a key component.” If ‘diet’ signals weight loss to most of us, in the case of those three rookie Dogs it has meant something else.

“All three of those freshmen have put on a significant amount of muscle in a month’s time,” Howland said.

A busy month for all enrolled Bulldogs, too. Howland and staff are taking advantage of the NCAA summer calendar to do as much as is allowed with the current roster, along with setting the stage for a real recruiting campaign. Sure, Howland appreciates the compliments from peers in these summer weeks.

Everyone becomes an opponent soon, though. And this is a coach only used to winning.

So, “It’s an exciting time for the Bulldogs.”


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