Jackson-area natives Malik Newman, Fred Thomas, Quindarry Weatherspoon, and walk-on Carter Holmes return to familiar turf, or hardwood, Wednesday. Game time is 7:00 with the MSU Radio Network broadcast, and telecast by the SEC Network.
State arrives 5-5, while the Bears of the Big Sky Conference are 5-3. This is the first-ever meeting of the programs. Prior to the game the Bulldogs, players and staff, will visit Blair E. Batson Hospital to spread some maroon-tinted Christmas cheer to the children.
This is the first time Coach Ben Howland will take a team to Jackson, but far from the first time Bulldog basketball has visited the capitol city. MSU teams are 15-5 in the Mississippi Coliseum since the facility opened in 1962. State beat Memphis State and Southern Mississippi that first year playing in the ‘big circus tent’ style building.
There have been long droughts where State did not play there but since 2002 the Bulldogs have brought a home game to Jackson eleven times. It has been a successful venue, too, up until last year when South Carolina-Upstate won 53-51.
Howland isn’t concerned much with history. His own rebuilding job has occupied the first-year coach’s attention entirely, and non-conference results have been mixed. In no small part, because Howland’s lineups have been mixed-up practically from opening evening.
Injuries, pre- and in-season, are the prime culprits of course. The encouraging news of late was getting a pair of frontcourt Dogs back ahead of schedule from their own issues. Center Gavin Ware shook off a scare at Florida State where he bruised the left knee to play 24 minutes in beating Tulane at Humphrey Coliseum. Ware didn’t start but made a quick impact off the bench with a dozen points and nine rebounds.
Forward Travis Daniels had missed the FSU game entirely with an early-week concussion from practice. His absence showed against the bigger, deeper Seminoles. Fortunately he cleared protocol in time to start against Tulane and play 15 minutes with five points and three boards. Barring further setbacks, and State has lost more players to practice injuries than live game pains, both Ware and Daniels will be starting together again tomorrow.
Howland has done a season’s worth of shuffling through just ten games. Only one Bulldog has opened every game, and big guard Craig Sword has responded with a consistent year. He is averaging 13.3 points and had 14 in Saturday’s win, while leading the squad in defensive pressure and steals. Ware still sets the offensive pace as the senior enjoys a career-year at 17.7 points and a shooting percentage just under 70%.
Those are the familiar State faces. Who fans will come to see are the home-town boys, most notably freshman Malik Newman. This court is very much ‘home’ to the Callaway High kid who cut down nets and hoisted state championship trophies three times. That’s also how often Newman was named ‘Mr. Basketball’ in Mississippi, not at all coincidentally.
College basketball has been a tougher track, not least because a turf toe had Newman literally limping into the season. The all-American prospect was hesitant pushing himself for weeks but now is showing why everybody in the land tried to land him. Newman has scored 45 points the last three games and hit 9-of-20 three point attempts. Another show of increased confidence: Newman has found his near-perfect high school stroke at the foul line by hitting his last 15 chances.
Weatherspoon has been forced into the starting lineup twice the last four games but is much more productive off the bench both shooting and rebounding. For a team with little depth this is priceless.
So is the defense and rebounding Johnny Zuppardo provides off the bench. A natural small forward, Zuppardo has stepped into the paint when Ware and Daniels need breaks or are in foul issues with good results. There is also the chance, even increasing possibility, that freshman forward Aric Holman could be on the court sooner than later. Howland has handled that topic cautiously up to now.
Mississippi State has faced one Big Sky squad already this season, whipping Eastern Washington 106-88 in the season opener on November 13.
Howland’s Dogs will get their Christmas break beginning tomorrow, before coming back to Humphrey Coliseum for a New Years Eve contest with North Carolina Central at 1:00. SEC season opens seven days later.