Consecutive eye-opening victories have unexpectedly pushed Mississippi State onto everyone’s February radar. Maybe even a little March speculation even. Sure there remains much ground to be made up if Ben Howland’s Bulldogs hope to play after the SEC Tournament.
But suddenly the suggestion is not at all silly. Not the way Mississippi State (12-14, 5-9 SEC) is playing.
“Obviously we had a great week last week,” Howland said.
That’s an under-Statement.
The Bulldogs bounced back from a tough home loss to Georgia, and a big second-half deficit in the next game, to shock Vanderbilt 75-74. That was big enough for club confidence. What happened next was maybe more meaningful for the program’s progress.
Because State walked into Tuscaloosa and knocked off one of the nation’s trending teams, beating Alabama 67-61. “We took that momentum and played our best game of the year against a very good Alabama team,” Howland said.
Those wins, and three victories in the last four outings, mean some real momentum for MSU for a new week. And, these last two weeks of the SEC schedule. To be sure the Bulldogs are not any sort of conference contender. They are still battling to avoid a first-day game at the SEC Tournament in fact.
Were the league meet starting this week State would the #12 seed and facing #13 Auburn in the only opening-day game. Fortunately there are four remaining games on the regular schedule to catch or surpass six-win squads like Tennessee and Arkansas, or do even better.
And after last week? Doing better is entirely possible, because of how the Bulldogs have improved their play per Howland.
“I think we played better defense. And we did a better job with our shot selection. Those two things.”
Two pretty important things, of course. The selected shots did hit at a rate of nearly 49% in these wins. Even more, State was 7-of-17 on three-pointers each time, their best outside shooting since January and for that matter the best consecutive-game trey accuracy since December.
The defensive numbers haven’t changed as radically, but are improved all the same. Of course when a team is more efficient on offense things at the other end tend to go better as well. Especially, club confidence.
“Once you get in a little rhythm it feels great, like you’re going to win every game,” senior guard Craig Sword said.
The Bulldogs ought have that winning feeling when Quindarry Weatherspoon has the ball. The freshman guard put his personal stamp on the winning week with 39 points, three of them coming on a career-defining moment. With time running out and the Dogs down two to Vanderbilt, it was Weatherspoon who had the ball cycled-around his way to an open corner. He stuck that trey as time ran out for the upset.
After scoring 24 in that win, Weatherspoon came back with 15 more at Alabama. There was another sort of defining moment, too; his first half blast at the basket and ‘posterizing’ dunk over an overmatched Tide guard. In the wins Weatherspoon shot an even 50% overall and was 7-of-10 at the arc.
That earned him co-Freshman of the Week in the league, though it was Weatherspoon’s game-winner and flying slam that earned the highlights. “He had another great week for us,” Howland said. “Like I said from the beginning, I thought he’d be a really good player. And he’s earned it.”
With ten games out of the last eleven scoring double-digits, Weatherspoon is up to 11.8 on the full season. But, he’s topping the team in SEC play at 14.9 points. He’s also a lock now for All-SEC Freshman and maybe even some national attention.
“I’m enjoying the little credits I’m getting and the awards,” Weatherspoon said. “But basically I’m trying to get some wins.”
So are seniors Gavin Ware and Craig Sword. The upperclassmen, who’ve never had a winning year in college, can almost smell .500 now. They also increasingly talk about doing some damage come SEC Tournament time. Ware is making his own bid for all-conference with his 15.9 points and 7.3 rebounds. It’s telling too that in the last three wins Ware has shot 19-of-29 and hit his free throws. In the Georgia loss, he never took a free shot…which is not a coincidence.
Meanwhile Sword is not getting the attention his play likely merits. It’s true that the senior guard/forward puts up a lot of shots and his accuracy runs hot or cold. But 50 points in the last four games to go with 19 rebounds reminds why Howland sees Sword as the competitive key to State’s team.
Like, his work at Alabama on defense. “I thought Chicken was outstanding, grading the film he did an outstanding job on their point guard. And that guy’s a great player.” And with the Dogs holding a one-possession lead, it was Sword who saw Ware coming open for a basket that stemmed Alabama’s last comeback attempt.
State’s Saturday win was even more impressive as guard Malik Newman missed it entirely. The rookie came out of the Vanderbilt game with back issues and he barely tried warming-up at Alabama before spending most of the game in the locker room strapped to a muscle stimulator.
“The back is locked-up,” Howland said Monday afternoon. “He got a MRI today.” Newman already was dealing with a hyperextended knee from January and other ailments, and had just 18 points in the last three games before sitting out Saturday.
“I’m sure it’s frustrating. It can’t be fun,” Howland said. “Look at all the things he’s been through. How you deal with that adversity is everything.”
Newman’s availability could mean adversity Wednesday evening. Howland said without him, State might have to mix more zone defense in the gameplan for Texas A&M. And it was that contest, the SEC opener, where the Bulldog zone was shredded. The Aggies still had to escape Humphrey Coliseum with a 61-60 win, though they were short-handed themselves that game.
Now A&M looks full-strength and are equally contenders for ‘hottest team’ title. Their overtime win over Kentucky has the Aggies a game behind the Wildcats for the SEC lead and in a three-way tie for second place.
“They have a really good team with nine very good players,” Howland said. “I think they’re going to do damage in the NCAAA Tournament, as I think a number of our teams will.”
Mississippi State isn’t one of those teams mentioned in NCAA terms. Speaking of which, last week’s wins could have hurt the league’s tournament outlook as Vanderbilt was dropped into iffy territory and Alabama’s seeding at least took a shot. Still if the Dogs are not even in hailing distance of the proverbial NCAA bubble, the NIT cannot be dismissed so easily any more.
Yes, it will likely require winning-out the remaining regular games and making a run of some sort at Nashville. The point is, such speculation coming from Bulldogs is no longer pie-in-sky talk.
Just don’t ask Howland if he joins such conversations with the squad. It has not, and will not.
“That wouldn’t change if we were 26-0. It would still be one game at a time.”