Mississippi State (3-3) hosts Texas Southern (1-5) this evening with 7:00 tipoff at Humphrey Coliseum. The home game will air on the SEC Network. Also, MSU Marketing has a variety of promotional opportunities for State students as well as children which can be found on HailState.com.
For first-year Coach Ben Howland this has been a productive week since returning from Puerto Rico last Monday. The Bulldogs lost twice in the tropic tournament but did finish with a solid victory, and used days back on campus for much-needed practice.
The results showed in a 76-51 home win over UT-Martin. Howland saw his short-handed squad play a reasonable first half and an outstanding second period to finish strong. It was opposite of the third-game win over Missouri State in Puerto Rico where the Dogs romped through the first half and coasted down the stretch. Still, both contests showed welcome progress in various aspects.
Not coincidentally, it was with the same lineup. With freshman guard Malik Newman getting up to season speed after his preseason turf toe injury, Howland has adapted accordingly. Senior guard Fred Thomas has moved into a rotation role so the gifted rookie can start alongside point guard IJ Ready and swingman Craig Sword.
Travis Daniels and Gavin Ware start on the baseline. They also have to put in more minutes here in early-season play than Howland would like, out of necessity. Frontcourt depth is minimal with only Fallou Ndoye as a backup post, and small forward Johnny Zuppardo the lone reserve to Daniels. Or even Ware in some situations.
Howland has not updated the status of suspended big forward Demetrious Houston, who played six minutes opening night and none in the last five games. Houston is on the team still and the suspension is unspecified.
Ware has risen to the challenge though, averaging over 30 minutes and still shooting nearly 71% to average 20.2 points so far. Against UTM he posted a second double-double for the season with 22 points and ten rebounds. Ware does have to pace himself to some extent, and revised NCAA foul criteria make defending hard a risk. Still Ware has blocked nine shots and managed to avoid real foul troubles for a couple of games.
The foul rules really crimp Sword’s style more, as he cannot be as aggressive all the time as he or his coach would like. On either end, that is. He is averaging under 27 minutes, good for rest but not as good for team efficiency since Sword is an explosive-play threat in transition or attacking the goal.
But it is the small Dog playing biggest minutes. Ready is averaging 31.0 even and having a pre-SEC season worthy of outside attention. Besides 11.8 points he has topped the team in both assists and steals, and cut down on mistakes in the process.
That is also something Howland likes of late, as the entire team’s assist to turnover ratio is greatly improved while fouls have dropped slowly.
Newman is being somewhat forced into starting status after his injury and it shows in 36% shooting and a few too many turnovers. But Newman has stepped up as a perimeter scoring threat State needs for much of his 11.4 average points, and every minute on the court brings him closer to 100% speed ahead of SEC play.
It is his non-starting classmate making a larger recent impression. Guard Quindarry Weatherspoon scored 16 against UTM and was the league Freshman of the Week after hitting all six shots.
Yet offense has not been Howland’s primary trouble, regardless of lineup. Dog defense has been lacking against most opponents, whatever the caliber. The coach admits he expected some of this having had to focus in summer and preseason on changing State’s shooting skills and offensive approach. And more than many programs, the Bulldogs are having to re-adapt to foul policies that take some edge off aggressive defense.
Now in December though, Howland no longer allows slack for such issues. State will just take its chances with whistles and go after opponents. Also, Dogs say that off-the-ball they have to be more alert to help opportunities and so teammates aren’t put in positions where fouling becomes inevitable.
This is the second meeting of State and TSU, the first coming back in December 1996 with that Bulldog bunch winning 95-64. State is 24-4 against SWAC programs all-time.
The Bulldogs don’t play again for ten days but will be busy all the same, practicing while attending to fall semester final exams. State is at Missouri-Kansas City on Dec. 12, then at Florida State on the 16th.