Two of them match-up Tuesday evening when Mississippi State (7-9, 0-4 SEC) visits Florida (11-6, 3-2). Game time from Gainesville is 6:00ct for ESNPU.
Under first-year Coach Mike White the Gators are tied for fourth place SEC. They also have some healthy momentum after two notable successes at home. Florida knocked off LSU a week ago; and this past Saturday took an 80-71 final over visiting Ole Miss.
“Florida is coming off a great win where they played their best game of the year,” Howland said. The Bulldog boss wishes he could say the same for his squad. Unfortunately…
“We’re coming off a tough loss, again.” That was an 80-75 setback to Tennessee, which kept State the lone winless team in league play after two weeks. Three of the four losses have been by a combined dozen points, showing a club that has been close to SEC success. Just, not close enough.
For the early-season there are a couple of shared opponents. Florida was thumped at Tennessee, who the Bulldogs just played down to the final minute Saturday. And, each has a close loss to Texas A&M in January. Out-of-conference both teams have losses to Miami, though State’s was on a neutral floor while Florida was on the Hurricanes’ court.
The last time State began SEC play 0-4 was January 1987; and the last 0-5 start came the previous year back when Bulldog basketball was in a complete rebuild mode. Thirty Januarys later Howland has taken on a comparable task, and in each loss he’s seen some progress. State was in one-possession games both at Kentucky and against Tennessee in the final minute, for evidence. Had a rebound gone in another direction or just been shorter, the Bulldogs would have their shot at tying or leading.
“We did some good things,” Howland said Saturday. But just as Texas A&M and Arkansas before them, the opponent beat the Bulldog defense in crunch time.
And defense has been on Howland’s mind for weeks now. State is playing competitively enough with the ball so far, scoring 69 points and shooting 43.5% in four league games; and turnovers aren’t too far out-of-line with the rest of the conference. In their last game the Dogs even did better at one weak point, playing harder to start second halves.
But defense has hurt. More to the point, it has frustrated Howland. Through four games his team has allowed one, just one more field goal; and only four more made free throws. Even shooting is even enough, allowing 44.3%.
So where is the difference?
At the arc. Sometimes on the glass, too, with a negative rebound margin, but the Dogs had 11 more boards than Tennessee. Yet the Vols won because they tore up nets with long-range shooting, much as Arkansas had a weekend earlier.
Through four games State has been burned for 44 treys, against 24 of their own. The regular barrage has convinced Howland to do something he always wanted to anyway: go back to man as the primary defense. A man-coach by nature, Howland switched to zone in December after so much foul trouble in pre-SEC play. In that aspect it worked with starters able to play to the final buzzer.
Except when the buzzer sounds State is trailing. “I thought our zone would help us win in the league,” Howland said. “But we’ve got to go away from it and live and die by our man defense.”
Again, this fits Howland’s preferences. Going zone was out of roster numbers necessity, especially in the post where Gavin Ware (SEC averages 15.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 46% field goals) is the only real paint player. Now the numbers say, go man rather than watch long shots hit.
“We’re giving up too many threes,” Howland said. At least in man defense the assignments are simpler, as several Dogs just struggle to know exactly what/when/where to do in any sort of zone. That is all the more true now that Howland is putting another true freshman, guard Quindarry Weatherspoon, in the starting lineup.
“It’s much more clearer in man,” Howland said. It ought be for veterans like seniors Craig Sword and Fred Thomas and junior IJ Ready, who played almost nothing but man during their previous State seasons. Plus, Howland said, “The guys that are going to be back I want them to gain a better understanding for next year.”
Weatherspoon is going to be playing out-of-position as a starter. A shooting guard by nature, he must line-up at forward now and sometimes even power forward. Weatherspoon (9.2 ppg, 46% field goals all season) made the most of his first SEC start by scoring 23 on Tennessee, getting four rebounds and even blocking a shot.
“I think he gives us so much in so many ways,” Howland said. “He’s a bright kid, he loves to play the game, he’s getting better and better.” Weatherspoon is not stuck at the four-spot though, he will rotate to the wings on each end and handle/shoot on offense in what will often be a four-guard lineup.
It isn’t an ideal solution. Howland won’t match Weatherspoon on true big-forwards any more than necessary, so seniors Travis Daniels and Johnny Zuppardo remain in the rotation. “We’re trying to get our best rebounders out there,” Howland added.
After playing a second Tuesday road game in as many weeks, the Bulldogs are home Saturday and hosting Ole Miss at 1:00.