“It’d mean everything,” Howland said. “We need to get our first W and our best chance is our next chance.”
Mississippi State’s coach is not slighting the Volunteers, understand. Howland means that at some point he would expect his Bulldogs (7-8, 0-3 SEC) to put a final piece or two in place and get that initial league victory.
A one-point home loss to Texas A&M, then a much-closer-than-scoreboard setback at Arkansas, were followed Tuesday with an 80-74 final at Kentucky. This last loss was the most encouraging so far, to Howland.
“I thought though we showed a lot more fight against Kentucky, falling down 20 and giving ourselves a chance to come back and actually having a chance to win down the stretch.” This was after State had been a three-point shot behind Arkansas inside six minutes, only to see the home team hit a strong of treys and pull away.
And of course the A&M game was a tie in the final minute. So, “It shows that we’re not that far away,” Howland said. “I’ve always believed you fight tooth-and-nail every second, that’s how you get better.”
Tennessee (8-8, 1-3) knows something about fighting this season. The Volunteers do have a league win, beating Florida at home, with losses at Auburn and Georgia and a four-point deficit to A&M. Also like State, they are under new management.
“Tennessee is a very good team,” Howland said. “They play extremely hard, they’re very good defensively and offensively. It’s another big challenge for us. And Rick Barnes is one of the best coaches in the country and has done a great job with that team.”
Howland’s own job is not so shabby under the circumstances. Still at some point competitiveness must become success to keep the club progressing. Though, Howland said, defeat doesn’t seem to be wearing down his Dogs.
“I thought we got better between the two (road) games just in terms of our fight.”
Now it’s a matter of fighting to a better finish. A couple of aspects stick out here in mid-January, most notably how the Bulldogs leave the locker room from halftime and aren’t up to speed. This, Howland said, is a “million dollar question” which he hasn’t found the answer for yet.
“At UCLA my teams were second-half teams,” he added. “It’s strange for me, but that’s a key for us.” Howland does point out that this was more true in the two road matchups where home teams ought have some advantage opening the second period. But, “Obviously it’s critical to do better.
“Just come out and play with the intensity needed at both ends. We definitely have to do a better job in the second halves and that’s something I’ve been talking about for a while.”
The other issue? Just finishing. Which Howland said falls to the defense, first.
“It’s getting stops.” State did get a stop at Lexington when it was a three-point game, but the rebound got away and Kentucky cashed in. And down four at Arkansas, “The way they were shooting it, we let them get open threes.”
Howland does not use a short roster as any excuse for such late-game lapses. He would like to have a deeper rotation, certainly in the frontcourt, by now. But he also won’t push freshman forward Aric Holman too hard just yet. Holman has played just eight SEC minutes, only one at Lexington, as Howland brings him along deliberately.
Getting the new kid going would be a huge help with lack of contributions, both ends, at the four-spot. Senior Travis Daniels averages over 25 SEC minutes but has scored just nine points in three games. He is not forcing many shots but not taking many, either, and has not attempted a free throw since December 23.
SEC opponents know to swarm center Gavin Ware, who despite the attention is averaging 16.8 points on 65% shooting. Ware has also managed to avoid real foul trouble for a month now and is nearly automatic at the foul line.
With all that attention in the lane, senior big-guard Craig Sword (12.9ppg, 48% field goals) is thriving. He followed up a 21-point production at Arkansas with 20 more at Kentucky, shooting 16-of-22 in the process. But, sustaining streaks has been Sword’s challenge all his college career. In the previous three games he had 19 total points.
This is why State looks more and more to freshman Malik Newman to play up to his all-star prep reputation. He’s trying. Newman (13.1ppg) hasn’t hogged the ball, playing off point guard IJ Ready (9.9ppg, 66 assists) and doing some good distributing of his own. “And he had four assists in the last game,” Howland said.
“He’s almost 15 points (average) in the SEC. And he’s improving, he had a great practice yesterday. I think he’s getting better and better.”
In many ways so has the whole squad. It still awaits that first SEC victory to prove the progress Howland is hoping for, and there’s no single formula. “It’s just possession by possession.”
As part of Saturday’s home game, Mississippi State is welcoming back all former Bulldog players of all generations. And a very special group of those will be recognized. The 1991 team, which claimed the school’s first SEC Championship since 1963, is to be honored at halftime.
Also, the current Bulldogs will wear uniforms based on the 1963 style to commemorate the ‘Game of Change’ from that season.
Tipoff is 2:31 with SEC Network telecast.