Mississippi State returns to action Saturday by hosting Tennessee-Martin. Tip off in Humphrey Coliseum is 12:01, and the game will be shown by the SEC Network+. The Bulldogs have been off for the best part of a holiday week since returning from Puerto Rico.
Well, off from competition. Practice, that has been on. Very much on, as Howland tries to turn the one victory in Puerto Rico into the first of multiple wins. His Bulldogs shook off losses to Miami and Texas Tech to beat Missouri State 84-70 on Sunday.
“I think we made a positive step that day,” Howland said. “This week the practices are to try to build on that.”
The 84-70 success would make a nice starting point. Mississippi State (2-3) torched the other MS for 45 first-half points, and by game’s end four Dogs were in double digits.
Howland went to the tropics with a realistic outlook on his team. And, the competition. His forecast that Miami is someone to watch in national terms was more than proven as the Hurricanes blew away the field. The Bulldogs did not seem too shaken up though as they played Texas Tech down to the wire, and if not for some ill-timed fouls and one truly bad bounce a win was within range.
“Just multiple things that went wrong,” Howland said. But after those setbacks, “I thought we played our best half of the year on Sunday. The first half we played really well, we played unselfishly, we made the extra pass, and played good solid man defense without fouling.”
Fouls are one grinding issue for this State squad. Injuries have cut the Bulldog roster uncomfortably short, to the point Howland has to count on a walk-on just to have true scrimmage periods. He had nine scholarship Dogs available in the three-game tournament…then thought it would be eight on Sunday when senior guard Fred Thomas banged a knee and was “out of it” in shootarounds per Howland.
“But he bounced back and had a solid performance against Missouri State.”
Having sat-out the opening game November 13, guard Malik Newman is working his way back to game speed. It isn’t easy on a turf toe and Newman has had to play with a protective plate in the shoe. Howland wishes he had not thrown Newman into the loss to Southern University, but during the tournament trip the rookie “got better with each opportunity.”
“Now this is a big week,” Howland said. “He’s back.”
Who is not back and won’t be for some time yet if ever, is freshman forward Aric Holman. His pre-season injury makes a return to competition too iffy to predict. Howland is though encouraged the talented power forward is now doing some five-on-none shooting drills and moving around. “Just to get Aric back in practice is huge.”
Wednesday, Howland had no update on Demetrious Houston. The sophomore forward played on opening night and hasn’t seen the court since for undisclosed reasons. Seeing how thin State is on the baseline, this is a discipline test of both the Dog and his coach and Howland is sticking to his own schedule.
So until Houston is cleared by the coach it remains nine scholarship players. Howland changed his lineup for Sunday, partly from Thomas’ uncertain shape. Newman stated instead, with Ready and Craig Sword at guards while forward Travis Daniels and center Gavin Ware played the inside. Those four backcourt Dogs threw in four treys but also cut down on turnovers.
Newman, Ready, and Sword were all in double-digits. It was Ware leading everyone with his 25 points, raising his season average to 19.6. In the process Ware also surpassed 1,000 career points. Thomas did not score off the bench Sunday, but freshman guard Quindarry Weatherspoon did.
But it isn’t scoring which has been State’s sore point so far. Even allowing how good Miami is, the Dog defense has struggled at best. Howland is not at all overlooking this side. “If you look at my career, people think of me as a defensive coach. So I think we will get there.”
The problem is multi-faceted. State is slow adjusting to the re-revised foul definitions for 2015-16. “With the new rules you can’t really touch anybody,” Weatherspoon said. Also, Howland said, the hurry-up offensive pace both tires the small scholarship roster faster…and has the other team pushing the pace themselves. Result, more missed assignments, more fouls, or both.
Plus, “We were so poor offensively when I got here, we spent so much time working on fundamentals and shooting in the off-season,” Howland said. It was a time trade-off he hated, there just was no option. “If you can’t shoot…,” Howland reminded. “It still comes down to that.”
At the same time defensive breakdowns aren’t automatically forgiven. The hard but maybe only way now to expedite learning is to do it on the job. Especially, Howland said, the two freshman guards.
“I’m not going to stop playing Malik and Q because we’re so far behind defensively. They need to grow as players.”
UT Martin is 2-4 with consecutive wins. The programs last met in 2011 with State leading, which gives MSU a 7-1 lead over the Ohio Valley Conference club.
Mississippi State is home next Wednesday against Texas Southern (7:00 SECN).