These two months for Mississippi State (7-5) open tomorrow, as does SEC season, with #21 Texas A&M coming to Humphrey Coliseum. Tipoff is 7:35 for the SEC Network.
“It starts a new season to us,” senior guard Craig Sword said.
Howland’s debut as a SEC coach is a little later than many of his peers. Eight league teams tipped it off last Saturday, so the first-year Bulldog boss did get in some quick scouting of sorts. Mostly, Howland saw confirmation of his own career move.
“It’s a great conference, when you look around this league at the quality of the basketball programs and the history. I had a chance to watch the opening games, really high-level games with great players and well-coached teams. That’s one of the reasons I was excited to be head coach at Mississippi State.”
Speaking of MSU head coaches, Wednesday brings back one of Howland’s predecessors. Rick Stansbury returns to Humphrey Coliseum where he served as assistant and then top coach from 1991-2012. He departed after winning the most games of any Bulldog head coach, and after a year-off joined the Texas A&M staff in 2014.
Mississippi State will have a pre-tipoff recognition of Stansbury on the court. “That’s my guy right there,” said senior center Gavin Ware, who was signed by Stansbury in spring 2012 but never had the chance to play for him.
Ware and Bulldogs will play against an Aggie (12-1) squad which has a SEC game under its belt, and a win on the record after beating Arkansas 92-69. Texas A&M features some of the best new talent on the West side of the conference in the frontcourt, and guard corps with forward-size which can not only create points but shut down opponents.
“And they’re off to an great start on the year, and been dominating people like Baylor and Arkansas,” Howland said. “They’re big inside, they’ll double-down in the post and make it difficult (for Ware) to get shots. But they have length, they have size. They have depth, and they kind of wear their opponent down.”
That’s certainly a concern for a Bulldog roster that isn’t deep at all. At the same time Mississippi State has been playing well leading up to SEC season with three consecutive wins. With guard Malik Newman getting up-to-speed since his pre-season toe injury, and now forward Aric Holman working his own way into the frontcourt rotation, Howland has more healthy parts to play with.
Plus, “We’ve stated to come together, everybody is used to each other and we’re starting to adjust to each other,” Sword said.
The adjustment Howland wants to see more of, is getting the basketball to Ware more often regardless of matchups. Ware is averaging 17.7 points and leads the SEC in accuracy at over 70%. Even if he already is the team’s first offensive option, “We can’t get him enough touches in my opinion,” said Howland. “Part of that is he’s got to keep working hard to seal. He’s getting better at sealing and demanding the ball.”
As for Newman, who has heated up during the winning streak, “He’s shooting the ball really well right now and getting in a groove where he’s letting the offense come to him.”
Now, SEC season has come for Howland. He saw enough of this league’s clubs during his coaching tours with Pitt and UCLA of course. Still a debut game in a new conference is always something of a transition for any coach.
For the Bulldog ball club? “This is something I have dreamed about my whole life,” rotation forward Johnny Zuppardo said. A senior, the 2014-15 transfer missed last season with a knee injury. So this will be his own SEC debut, too. “We really look forward to this game. The other day at practice we were all excited and yelling and screaming. We were just really happy and had a good vibe.”
Humphrey Coliseum ought have a good vibe in pregame with recognition of the still-popular Stansbury. He may be working for the other side of course, but at least will be part of a maroon-and-white club.
“I made it really clear how much respect I have for Rick Stansbury and how much he’s given Mississippi State,” Howland said. “I hope people plan to get here early and show him the respect he deserves.”