Mississippi State takes to the home court Friday evening, hosting Eastern Washington (8:05ct, SECN) to begin the Ben Howland era. Well, on the scoreboard. Practically speaking Howland’s tenure began within minutes of his hiring, of meeting returning Bulldogs and putting his first team to immediate work.
“We’ve improved a lot in every aspect from March 24 to now,” Howland said. “And I think we’ll improve through the season.”
There will be improvement just by getting every available 2015-16 body in action, sometime. That itself will be a victory because summer and preseason injuries have turned a complete 13-scholarship roster into something less.
Out for the year at this point are transfer forward Xavier Stapleton, who would have been redshirting anyway after changing schools; and freshman forward Joe Strugg. Freshman forward Aric Holman is probably booked to redshirt after preseason injury, though Howland said this week Holman might be practicing “within a month” and is already doing some shooting after his surgery.
Of more immediate concern is freshman guard Malik Newman. A ‘turf toe’ condition meant putting the nation’s top guard prospect in a cast that just came off Tuesday. Newman was back to shooting mid-week and trying to run some 5-on-0 drills, and was to see a specialist Wednesday. His availability for Friday is wait-and-see.
Howland did say though “Putting Malik out there many minutes would be reckless” on opening night. If things weren’t tense enough, Ready “tweaked his hip in practice,” Howland said. The exam showed nothing and Ready does expect to play in his junior-year opener.
“I’m a little sore, but besides that I feel great,” Ready said. Howland also hopes junior guard Fred Thomas is feeling better after coming down with a sore throat.
All that allowed for… “I’m excited about our team,” Howland said. Dominating performances in first a closed scrimmage with 2015 NCAA Tournament participant UAB and then in last Friday’s exhibition romp over Fort Valley State is good reason for the coach’s excitement at this point. And as the coach said, all that was done by short-handed rosters.
“So I’m pleased with how our team is developing. The key to us is one thing: staying healthy.”
Howland has not given a specific starting lineup. Still the exhibition and any awareness of this roster make it easy for any fan to have a good guess. Ready is the only true point guard for-sure available and a veteran besides so he will open there. Seniors Thomas and Craig Sword round-out the backcourt with six combined seasons of experience and a fresh hunger to win something at last.
The frontcourt will almost assuredly have senior Travis Daniels at forward, and of course senior center Gavin Ware. Power forward is not Daniels’ ideal position but with Holman out he and soph Demetrious Houston are the only real ‘power’ bodies available. Howland has been pushing Johnny Zuppardo to improve his physical presence around the baseline, since the redshirt senior’s forte to now has been playing the perimeter.
Post depth consists entirely of soph Fallou Ndoye, struggling with preseason wrist issues. He did get 21 minutes last Friday with five points and four boards to show. But he also had four fouls, and for that matter Zuppardo and Daniels combined for nine more personals. It’s a tricky balance Howland is seeking between playing his aggressive brand of defense while working around the NCAA’s renewed emphasis on freeing play with fast whistles.
Even if Newman plays little or not at all, backcourt depth is excellent. The talent potential, even better. Freshman Quindarry Weatherspoon has had a brilliant preseason and in the exhibition scored 15 points with three treys and six assists.
“Q has made really great progress,” Howland said. “He was terrific Friday, he’s been terrific the whole time.” Other than, the coach added, a few more turnovers than necessary. “But he’s thrown into that role of point guard right now, and he’s doing a great job defensively. He’s going to be a terrific player.”
However, Mississippi State has also drawn a possibly-terrific challenger in Eastern Washington. The Eagles are coming off a 26-9 season and sharing the Big Sky Conference championship.
“They really have my attention big-time, and we knew that when we signed the contract,” Howland said. EWU would not have been his first choice for a first foe but State needed a game on this date.
“They have really tough matchups,” said Howland. Only one starter returns from last March’s NCAA participant, junior forward Venky Jois (16.7ppg) who begins in the post but will rotate to the point. “They’ll run sets with him,” Howland said.
Soph forward Bogdan Bliznyuk was Big Sky freshman of the year as a non-starter and per Howland a marksman at the arc. Which he actually says about the rest of their lineup. Howland calls it a ‘Euro style’ offense with lots of movement and lots of quick shots.
“I wish we were playing somebody we could beat by 95 points. But that’s not the case.”
Now, if Howland’s first real recruiting class at Mississippi State plays up to its rankings, big winning margins might well be in the future. State will announce Wednesday signees this Thursday morning, though Howland did say he expected at least four sets of signed papers on the first day.
Guard Tyson Carter (Starkville, MS), center Schnider Herard (Plano, TX), forward Mario Kegler (Mouth of Wilson, VA), guard Eli Wright (Owensboro, KY) are among the prospect either signed already or committed to sign with State in the early period. The first three are the #77, 39, and 46 prospects nationally by Scout.com. State is also pursuing guard Lamar Peters (#69) and center De’Ron Davis (#48) in this class, among others.
“A lot depends on who we sign, and those kids that come in next year and two years from now,” Howland said. However, come Friday recruiting must take a back-seat for the present.
Certainly the past is no more a Bulldog burden. Three seasons of futility are expected to end right now.
“We don’t really think about the last two years,” Ready said. “It’s a new team, new coaches. It just feels a lot better at the point we’re at. We’re taking it day by day and getting better.”