Ben Howland makes his own SEC coaching debut Wednesday when Mississippi State hosts Texas A&M. Game time in Humphrey Coliseum is 7:30 for SEC Network telecast.
The Bulldogs (7-5) have enjoyed a little down-time since their last action, a New Years Eve afternoon home win over North Carolina Central. That success gives Howland’s team a three-victory streak to conclude pre-league play, and boosted the club’s confidence.
It also has seen Mississippi State get a little healthier of body, too. Some December scares limited or sidelined some key Bulldogs, especially on the front line. State survived and at times looked to be thriving, albeit against low-level competition. But that, and a couple of brief breaks, was what Howland needed to prep his available roster for the SEC opener.
It’s still a dangerously thin squad. The departure of center Fallou Ndoye, after a talk with Howland about the future, leaves nine scholarship Bulldogs and a handful of walk-ons to play with. One of them gets more attention than the typical volunteer. Quarterback Elijah Staley is on-loan again after accompanying the football team to Charlotte to watch the Belk Bowl victory. He came back fast and put in a couple of minutes last week, and is likely to see increased action to shore-up the forward rotation.
Much more meaningful for the program’s SEC chances as well as the future is activating true freshman Aric Holman. Sidelined by a pre-season knee surgery, Holman returned faster than expected and made his debut Dec. 23 at Jackson. He played 11 minutes that night, and 13 more last week.
Howland said Holman had “a really good practice” on Sunday. “He’s going to keep improving. He has a good feel for the game and skills, for him it’s just growing every day.”
Holman is absolutely necessary because he is the only true power forward on the roster. Travis Daniels (8.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) has done what he can to fill that starting job, though he’s naturally a small forward. Daniels also has had to battle through his own health issues, with a December concussion scare. Holman gives Howland priceless flexibility on the baseline.
“The biggest thing we need out of him is to be a better rebounder and defender,” Howland said. And, to avoid the cheap fouls that limited his minutes against NCC.
So far center Gavin Ware has managed to avoid most foul woes, even with opponents focused on drawing whistles on State’s only real post player. If the SEC had a winter all-conference squad the senior Dog would surely be on it, averaging 17.7 points and leading the league in official field goal shooting at 70.4%. A couple other SEC shooters are a little better, such as the Texas A&M center Ware is about to face, but they haven’t taken enough attempts to count.
The Bulldog backcourt is becoming a strength as well, at least on offense. Point guard IJ Ready (10.6 ppg) is having a career year scoring as well as playing really well at quarterback. Howland loves the ratio of 55 assists against 21 turnovers. “I think he’s having a really solid campaign.”
Even better is pairing Ready with freshman Malik Newman, only now coming into full-strength himself after that November turf toe setback. In his Jackson hometown Newman put on a 20-point show with 4-of-8 work at the arc. Then he came back to the college home court for 15 more points, raising his average to 13.3. That earned Newman SEC Freshman of the Week in the final 2015 release of weekly honors.
Newman has also found his shooting eye. In these last three wins he is 9-of-18 at the arc, 52% on all shots, and made good on 11-of-12 free throws. The assists are coming, too, in cooperation with Ready. “They work well together,” Howland said. “It’s like having two point guards out there together.”
Mississippi State will face one of the SEC’s best playmakers Wednesday. Guard Alex Caruso directs their offense and tops the league in assists, but he’s also a deadly defender with a knack for steals. The Aggies make up the best overall shooting percentage team in the conference.
Feeding the ball to center Tyler Davis is a good way to get credited with an assists, too, as the big Aggie is hitting 76% of his shots. But he doesn’t get a lot of chances and doesn’t rank in the league’s top-ten for accuracy.
In fact the Aggies are a balanced offensive bunch, lead by guard Danuel House at 15.2 points which is 11th best in the SEC. The next-best Aggie? Davis at 11.6 points way down in 31st place. So everyone is a threat to put up a shot, especially three-point ace Admon Gilder who strokes 42% of his long shots. Oh, and guard Jalen Jones just got named the SEC Player of the Week for averaging 19.5 points in the last couple of contests.
The Aggies are 11-2 and already off to a 1-0 conference start after whipping Arkansas. So, “We’ve got our hands full,” Howland said. “So it’ll be a great challenge for us.”
Howland and select Bulldogs will be talking to local media Tuesday morning, about the matchup, the SEC opener, and for the upperclassmen who were signed by him about the return to Humphrey Coliseum of former Bulldogs Coach Rick Stansbury as an Aggie assistant. Stansbury is Mississippi State's winningest career basketball coach, in his tenure of 1999-2012.