Mississippi State (4-3) does step onto an opponent’s own court this weekend, with a trip to Missouri-Kansas City. Game time is 4:00 with broadcast on the American Sports Network.
“It’s a big test,” Howland said. “And coming out of finals makes it more difficult.”
Yes, fall finals have absorbed much of Mississippi State energies since the last action on December 2. Not all energy though. Whatever time not devoted to study and exams has been invested in practice. Lots of practice. “Too much practice!” guard Craig Sword said.
But, as much as Howland thought his club could handle. Since his first season here tipped-off the coach has lamented lack of teaching time. So instruction time has been crucial in addressing issues exposed by the first seven games.
“It’s been good,” Howland said. “But a big part is focusing on their studies, and our last practice wasn’t great because guys were mentally whipped.” Especially the first-year guys, who have looked to old Dogs like Travis Daniels for first-time fall finals advice.
“You just have to balance it out,” the senior forward said. “I’m done so I had more focus on basketball. But you have to balance it out and come to practice focused and ready for the next game.”
A game that Howland, given his druthers, would not be playing. “Typically you want to have your easiest game of the year coming out of finals. It is what it is.”
The Kangaroos are 5-4, coming off a 79-70 loss at South Dakota. Howland sees a better squad than the record on scouting video. “They’re a team to contend with. They’re well-coached and have a difficult style to play against.”
That style is most prominent on defense where UMKC plays aggressive zone. So aggressive, Howland said, “And they’re also pressing back to the zone.” This is something the Bulldogs don’t like to hear because they have struggled in some early exposures to zones.
Offensively, “They have as good a pair of guards as any we’ve seen,” Howland said. Martez Harrison was the conference Player of the Year as a sophomore and specializes in beating or splitting ball screens. Helping on him risks leaving LaVell Boyd open. “And he’s shooting 52% from three,” Howland said. “They shoot just under 40% from three as a team, they’re big and athletic.”
Mississippi State is not particularly big on the roster, which is now officially shorter. Howland announced power forward Demetrius Houston “Will no longer be with us.” The sophomore wasn’t really with State much anyway, having been suspended after playing six minutes in the opening game and none since. No reason for the permanent suspension was given and Howland said Houston is told to look for transfer opportunities.
State has added one athlete to the travel list though. Quarterback Elijah Staley joined the team for the last game, not playing, as the regular season ended. Though football will begin practicing for the Belk Bowl tomorrow, Staley is supposed to make the UMKC trip. Howland did not say if Staley will miss other campus practices with football but that the sophomore will be with his scholarship sport for the bowl game.
“He helps us, he gives us another quality player who can make our practices better,” Howland said. The coach also said freshman forward Aric Holman has increased his practice load after returning from pre-season knee surgery. But, not too much of a load, Howland cautioned.
“As soon as we start going up and down his lack of conditioning shows up. What we don’t want is to push him too far and have him somehow reinjure it.” Howland had no projection whether Holman, a high-rated power forward, will actually play this season.
Point guard Ready (12.6 points, 36 assists) has had his own health issues again with a sore patella tendon that sidelined him Monday and Tuesday. “I’m feeling a little better,” Ready said. “I got to one point I couldn’t move in practice, it kept locking-up on me.” Howland expects Ready to be ready for tipoff Saturday.
In Ready’s practice absence freshman Malik Newman (11.0ppg) took over at point, with occasional spelling from classmate Quindarry Weatherspoon (8.1ppg). Howland said the two first-year pups will be more relieved than anyone to finish their finals, each having a pair of Wednesday exams.
Newman is still getting over a pre-season turf toe, which shows in his 38% shooting. But in his four starts Newman has become a more selective shooter and turned the assist/turnover ratio positive. Weatherspoon off the bench has been a 52% shooter and three-point threat.
The offense is still built around center Gavin Ware (20.0ppg, 71% field goals), who has been on a scoring tear of late with 25, 22, and 19 points the last three games. He also has consecutive double-doubles and three on the season. What helps his game is when Daniels is at the top of his, as with his 18 points in beating Texas Southern before the break.
Daniels is by nature a three-man, but has made himself comfortable as a power forward. “I played four in junior college, and offensively I was good playing it. One of the biggest things is being consistent, staying aggressive, being active on the court.”
“I think he’s doing a really good job,” Howland said. “He’s second on the team in offensive boards, and doing a good job shooting the three-ball when he’s open.”
The time-schedule opens up for Bulldogs with today’s end to exams. Next week sends State to Florida State (Dec. 16) before a Saturday home game with Tulane. But first, is a trip Howland wishes were not necessary to schedule.
“Look how many power five teams are going on the road coming out of finals, we’ve got to be one of the very few.”