But for Ben Howland there is no bemoaning one missed shot with a couple of even tougher ones immediately ahead. “We have to bounce back with not a lot of time to prepare,” the Bulldog coach said. “Really, two games coming up real quick.”
Yeah, like an oncoming train. Mississippi State’s penalty for a delayed SEC tipoff at home is consecutive road games in compressed order. Oh and just for good measure, at Arkansas and Kentucky. The Bulldogs (7-6, 0-1 SEC) visit Fayetteville this Saturday afternoon (2:30, SECN); then have the short turnaround before heading to the other end of the conference next Tuesday.
All this, on the heels of facing #21-ranked Texas A&M in their league debut. The result was a thriller before the Bulldogs fell short 61-60. Still Howland has to wonder what sort of twisted humor was programmed into the SEC’s scheduling software to assign Mississippi State this three-game sequence right from the start.
“The level of play with our opponent is really, really ramped-up,” said Howland, avoiding any temptation to show irony. In fact, looking at the league schedule this week, “12 of the 18 games are against teams in the RPI top-fifty,” Howland noted.
Arkansas (7-7, 1-1 SEC) is a very different proposition than the Aggie team State just played. That in fact the Razorbacks played first, losing last Saturday on league-opening weekend. Arkansas was able to bounce back Tuesday and defeat visiting Vanderbilt in overtime, and now have had an extra day to prepare for another home game.
For their own first conference road trip, Howland sees a complete contrast on one end of the floor. Texas A&M played zone all evening in Humphrey Coliseum. Arkansas? They don’t wait for the opponent to come to them.
“It’s hard to simulate Arkansas’ defense,” Howland said. “No one else in our conference plays with that trapping, pressing, doubling.” Which is not good news for a Bulldog team that is averaging a dozen turnovers per game and lost the handle 14 times Wednesday. Including, on State’s offensive chance to tie the game up, when guard Craig Sword drove into two Aggies and couldn’t control his dribble.
One positive trend has been with point guard IJ Ready keeping the ball under control. He has just three turnovers in the last four games regardless of defensive scheme. Ready has not been particularly aggressive on offense as far as shooting, averaging under six shots in this same stretch, but being selective has brought better accuracy.
By himself Ready won’t beat Arkansas pressure of course. Howland has called Malik Newman a second point guard on the floor with Ready and that will be needed Saturday. Newman’s height ought help see and escape the traps, too. And once on the offensive end he has the green light to make something happen.
Freshman Newman scored 14 in his SEC debut and was 3-of-7 at the arc. His 4-of-11 overall was somewhat bad luck as a few balls rolled the wrong way on home iron. Overall, “It was everything I expected,” Newman (13.3 ppg) said of his first conference test.
Classmate Quindarry Weatherspoon (8.5 ppg) also jumped right into league play with some success, 12 points and five rebounds. He was also more aggressive than even some seniors in the first half attacking A&M.
“Q’s minutes off the bench were huge for us, he did a really nice job,” Howland said. For now Weatherspoon will continue to sub-in as needed. At this rate though, and if a couple of senior Dogs continue to struggle offensively, more and earlier minutes could be in store.
When and if the Bulldogs can beat the presses and traps, the first offensive option isn’t outside. It is going in to senior center Gavin Ware (17.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg). Ware didn’t get enough first-half touches against A&M or make much of those he had, going scoreless at intermission. He came back with 15 second-half point though, and worked 33 minutes with just two fouls.
Howland thought afterwards he had played Ware too long, or at least the stints were too long and wore his only post-points threat out. The fact remains without Ware on the floor defenses can spread themselves out easier. He hasn’t gotten much frontcourt support of late either. Forward Travis Daniels has scored 19 points total in the last five games on 7-of-20 shooting.
Rebounding? That really struggles without Ware and often with him, even. State has been out-boarded by 17 total the last two games, one of them a win. A&M’s zone helped them hit the offensive glass obviously…but the Bulldogs also played full-time zone in the game.
Howland is no fan of the zone approach. He is practical enough to swallow that pride and play it with this thin roster. And to an extent it has worked. A&M became an outside shooting team and missed much more than they made. “That’s what the zone is supposed to do,” Howland said.
“And I think we’re getting better with our rotations. We’ve got to continue to tweak it, and the personnel. But part of it is committing to it.” Also, zoning tends to keep Ware out of cheap-foul situations and that counts more than most other factors.
“The bottom line is executing better offensively when we have opportunities in transition,” Howland said. “And we’ve got to get better in our half-court offense going through Gavin.”
That’s assuming State can get the ball across half-court Saturday, of course. Since a good stretch of success during Rick Stansbury’s good years, Walton Arena has not been a happy trip for Bulldog teams. The fans are also gradually coming back to Arkansas basketball, too, and with the spring semester beginning the Bulldogs will play before the first truly hostile crowd of the campaign so far.
Ware, Sword, and guard Fred Thomas are making their fourth trips to Fayetteville and know what to expect. For Newman, Weatherspoon, and forward Aric Holman this will be the first such experience. But Ware figures it will be more exciting than scary for the freshmen.
“I believe we’ve got a good, veteran team and the guys coming in have the skill set and mindset to catch on,” Ware said. “You’ll see better from us in the upcoming games.”