Mississippi State is hosting a twenty-year reunion of the 1996 Final Four Bulldogs this weekend. That legendary squad will have a dinner Friday evening, then be recognized at halftime of Saturday’s game. As Howland said, “I want to play our hearts out for those guys.”
Guys like Dampier, Walters, Super D, Dontae, Bullard, Hughes, Hyche, Tyrone, and the rest of small roster which wrote the biggest chapter in modern program history. Most members have returned to Humphrey Coliseum at various times, and their Coach Richard Williams is currently part of the Bulldog broadcast crew.
But this will be the first chance for the entire team and support staff to re-assemble on their home court. As well as for Friday’s gathering, which will also be attended by the current Bulldogs.
“It’s going to be great,” said senior guard Craig Sword. “I’ve been waiting to meet some of them so it’s going to be a great experience for me.”
Howland himself expects to enjoy the event too. Never mind he can trump State’s Final Four appearance with three of his own, in consecutive seasons at UCLA. This only allows him a better appreciation than anyone for what it takes to achieve one Final Four.
“All the sacrifice, hard work, and the success, for so many people. Everybody is a part of it and it’s really special. It’ll never be forgotten. To have those memories and shared experiences for all the people involved with that team.”
At the same time, Howland has his own team involved with some late-season development. The Bulldogs (12-15, 5-10 SEC) are coming off an intense trip to Texas A&M, where they not only lost 68-66 but once again had aircraft issues that delayed return a day. State has gotten used to travel problems. And with close court calls, for that matter. Six of the ten league losses have been by six or fewer points.
This one still grated Friday. “It was a disappointing loss because we had the ball up one three times,” Howland said of the last two minutes. “We only got to the line ten times, which was a problem. And we had a bad turnover where we didn’t read it properly.”
“But that game’s behind us. Now it’s on to South Carolina which is equally good. In my opinion the toughest, most physical team in our league.”
Nobody in the conference is arguing that assessment. Coach Frank Martin’s Gamecocks (23-5, 10-5) play a bruising style more in line with 1980s Big East basketball than anyone in the game today. Especially in the SEC, a league with lots of athletes but not many thumpers.
There’s nothing pretty about South Carolina’s offense. Even State (46.1%) shoots better than the visitors’ 43.1% rate, and the outside accuracy is close enough to even. The Bulldogs actually average fewer turnovers, too.
But the Gamecocks don’t mind grinding for their points. And they blast the backboards with abandon, showing a plus-7.2 rebound margin and blocking 4.5 shots each chance. This is a rematch from January 26 when South Carolina had a huge 51-26 edge in rebounds in an 84-74 victory. The Bulldogs played a closer contest than the final margin, but at crunch time…South Carolina had the crunchers.
So, “We’d better understand what kind of game it’s going to be,” Howland said. “If you expect ballet, it ain’t happening.”
Dancing is not on Mississippi State’s minds as February winds down. Had the Dogs upset A&M they would have won four of their last five and raised hopes of sneaking into one of the lesser post-season events. With three games left on the schedule they could still get to the conference tournament at break-even, and play for the program’s first winning record since 2012.
At this point though Howland is just trying to coach his club day to day. Literally, given the challenges of a short (numerically and literally) roster that hasn’t been full-strength very often. One positive from the midweek trip was getting guard Malik Newman back in action for 18 minutes. He’d missed the win at Alabama with back problems, but looked just fine at College Station with eight points on 50% shooting both overall and at the arc.
Howland’s obvious concern Saturday is much closer to the goal. With only center Gavin Ware to truly match with the big South Carolina bodies, the coach will have to carefully measure minutes and if necessary adapt to foul troubles. Which Ware had in the first meeting in Columbia, playing just 23 minutes around four personals and shooting only 1-of-6.
Wednesday evening though Ware was able to work 33 minutes, and ironically Howland said that was probably too many. “Because he was exhausted.” This exemplifies the challenge the first-year coach has had piecing lineups together not just game by game but practically minute to minute.
Today’s Dogs won’t be able to participate in the halftime recognition of their most famous predecessors. They should hear the cheers through locker room walls just fine. And besides, Friday evening everyone will assemble to celebrate the past, present, and future of Bulldog basketball.
“I’m really excited about that for our team,” Howland said. “It’s all the Bulldog family.”