Mississippi State tries to carry fresh excitement from a home-court victory on the conference road with a Tuesday contest at South Carolina. Tipoff is 6:00ct for the SEC Network.
The Bulldogs (8-10, 1-5 SEC) are coming off Saturday’s 83-77 success against Ole Miss. The victory snapped the league losing string at last, as well as a two-year streak to the in-state rivals. Both mattered to Coach Ben Howland.
“We’re glad to finally get a win under our belt in the conference. And it was an important win.”
Maybe the rest of the league paid little attention to what happened in Humphrey Coliseum. Maybe they should. If the Bulldogs are far too far off the SEC pace already to think about anything beyond avoiding opening day at the conference tournament, they can still have an impact on the rest of the bracket.
In fact, they very nearly have already. Four of five Bulldog league losses were only decided in final few minutes. A stop here, a different bounce there, and State would have shuffled much of the January standings. To Howland that is not the point.
The first-year coach has been much more concerned how his club was coping with so many close calls and regular frustrations. That, maybe, the Bulldogs were doubting they could come through and make winning plays when it mattered most.
Now, they have. Howland has seen the difference already.
“No question, to get the monkey off our back,” Howland said Monday. “We were in all five and four had a chance to win in the last two minutes. It’s a positive no one is blowing us out, but to finally get over the ump helps you feel better.”
Tuesday’s opponent is not feeling so great at the moment, though the season as a whole has been a solid success for South Carolina (17-2, 4-2). Because they are coming off a weekend upset loss at Tennessee the Gamecocks are in a quartet of two-loss SEC teams instead of alone in second place. They also just dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 Monday. Still this is the turnaround season for Coach Frank Martin, as his fourth team has as many wins already as they did all last year.
“We’ve got obviously a great team in South Carolina which is really, really having an outstanding year,” Howland said. “A NCAA tournament team and a ranked team. NCAA play is something long-missing in Columbia. The program’s last appearance in the national tournament was 2004, thought South Carolina did win the SEC’s Eastern Division title in 2009 without getting a NCAA bid.
The Gamecocks are middling in most conference stat-categories, with the exception of rebounding. That, they rank second-best at since everyone contributes. What really stands out on this lineup is how no one really stands out. Five players average double-digit scoring, all between 12.6 points and 10.7, so there is no one offensive focus.
This is a frontcourt-oriented club though with forwards Michael Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas, and Lalmonas Chatkevicus splitting up the points and boards and driving opposing radio crews crazy. That trio combines to shoot a bit better than 50%. Outside punch comes from Duane Notice with 36 made-treys, though Carrera will step outside to shoot longballs as well.
South Carolina’s size and style are not the sort of matchups Mississippi State favors. Not with one true post player on the roster. He’s a good one of course, as center Gavin Ware is having an all-SEC senior season. He leads the league in shooting by eight whole percentage points and scores 16.2 per game despite being the literal center of defensive attention.
“He’s done a great job. He’s had double figures in every game but one,” Howland said. “He’s embraced the idea of getting more post touches and scoring close to the basket. He’s shooting an incredible percentage from the field.”
The SEC’s most accurate inside shooter is just 10th in scoring, though. Defenses make it as difficult as possible just to get Ware the ball at all, much less in the lane. Ware has added a reliable mid-range jumper to his arsenal in response, though Howland would rather he score at the rim and hopefully draw a few fouls in the process.
Not fouls on himself, though. “The big key for us is him to play without getting in foul trouble,” Howland said. “When he’s on the floor good things are going to happen for our team.”
Mississippi State has waited for great things from Malik Newman. The freshman showed them at last, in SEC play that is, with 25 points and seven made-treys (one shy of tying the program record) against Ole Miss.
“He played with a log of swag and confidence. He let the game come to him,” Howland said. But it wasn’t just Newman’s scoring which made this, all hope, a breakout game. “He’s getting better and better defensively which is exciting. And I thought he made some very good plays distributing the ball.”
The trick for Newman (13.4ppg, 43 treys) is finding the sort of consistency classmate and fellow guard Quindarry Weatherspoon (9.9ppg) has shown since promotion to the starting lineup this semester. Howland saw the freshman pressing back in the non-conference schedule; now Weatherspoon looks as poised as many veterans.
“It’s just experience. He fills up the stat sheet every night; rebounds, steals, deflections. And obviously he’s scoring points.”
Senior guard Craig Sword (12.7ppg) and junior point guard IJ Ready (10.2, 79 assists) contribute points as well in what has become a four-guard lineup. The 6-4 Weatherspoon is playing way out-of-position at big forward, but for now that is the way State must work. Senior wingman Johnny Zuppardo (3.6ppg) finds himself the backup at both big forward and center by-turns, though Howland is trying to find realistic minutes for freshman forward Aric Holman to contribute at the goal.
State stays on the road this week with a Saturday trip to Missouri.