Mississippi State visits Missouri for a Saturday contest. Tipoff in Columbia is 7:30 on the SEC Network.
The Bulldogs are trying to end an eight-loss streak on true hostile floor, and while Coach Ben Howland has only been associated with six of the setbacks that’s too long for him.
“Yeah, we definitely want to get our first road win tomorrow.”
Mississippi State (8-11, 1-6 SEC) have had their share of close calls this conference campaign. They fell by six points at Kentucky, three at Florida, and this week by ten at South Carolina. All were much narrower decisions than the final margins, too. Each time the Bulldogs went into the last two, even one minute with a genuine chance to win.
So Howland’s hope is his first Mississippi State club can not only continue playing competitive ball, but start making the winning plays at crunch time. There are even Bulldogs who know how it feels to win a road game and at Missouri to boot. A year ago State came away with a 77-74 victory.
Now under new management MSU tries for a repeat. It won’t be easy, Howland said. Even though Missouri (8-12, 1-6) has more than their own share of struggles this season, the Tigers present some matchup issues that do not mesh well with Mississippi State.
“They have a good inside presence,” Howland said. “It’s going to be tough for us matching up with their two traditional bigs. And they have good guards.” Missouri also will switch from man to zone defenses and back to keep the Bulldogs guessing.
The Tigers are coming off a thumping at Kentucky, a place where the Dogs did play surprisingly well and were a series from an upset. Still, “A lot of people are going to get beat bad at Rupp Arena,” Howland said. “I watched their game at (Texas) A&M where they were right there with the top team in our league.”
Mississippi State has become a different team in January’s second half, after Howland made a lineup move that looked risky at the time. Instead inserting guard Quindarry Weatherspoon into the starter squad, and using him as a ‘big’ forward no less, has made for a more competitive group.
“The change was to get our best five players on the floor,” Howland said. “To get off to good stats the beginning of each half.”
The 6-4 freshman has rewarded such faith with four excellent games, scoring 18.5 points as a SEC starter on 53% shooting and making seven three-point goals. And playing nearer the goal, despite size miss-matches, Weatherspoon has come away with 21 rebounds in four games.
While Weatherspoon has the better numbers in this stretch, his more-touted classmate is playing more like his star prospect expectations. As Malik Newman continues to get stronger and more decisive his production grows. He has scored 52 points in the last three games including 25 in the victory over Ole Miss, while making 14-of-22 at the arc.
There are backcourt concerns this weekend though. Point guard IJ Ready was having a big night at South Carolina when, on a made-trey, he came down on a Gamecock’s foot and rolled the ankle. He did return after treatment and finished with 20 points and seven assists.
But the ankle kept him out of Thursday practice and Howland is only saying he’s “hopeful” Ready can play at Missouri. If not, or if limited, Newman would move to the point.
Even with Weatherspoon’s good work, Howland did say he foresees greater use the other and more typical forwards on the roster. This could be the game Travis Daniels gets more minutes at the four-spot for muscle on the baseline, with Johnny Zuppardo swinging from four to three and if necessary to the low post. Howland said Daniels had a good practice this week and showed up more on rebounds, which has been the team’s true weakness.
“That will be tested again tomorrow.”
The wild-card going into month-two though can be freshman Aric Holman. Had the forward not torn up his knee in preseason this could have been a different year in many ways. Holman’s limited minutes since late-December activation haven’t produced a lot of stats.
But, Howland said, the progress shows weekly. “He had his best practice of the year yesterday. He was looking to score more, in the past we’ve had to implore him to look to score. And yesterday he spun off Gavin (Ware) a couple of times and scored in the block.”
This trip will end a stretch where State has played three of four, and four of six, games away from home. Starting next Tuesday, four of the five upcoming games will be in Humphrey Coliseum.