“I just wish I would have had them for another year,” the Bulldog coach said. “I guarantee they’d be a lot better than they are now. I feel terrible for us #1, and them 1B. But they’re doing a good job. We’re playing the best basketball we’ve played the whole year at the end of the year, and we want to continue to do so.”
What is not going to continue much longer though is this Mississippi State season. Saturday is the last time this Bulldog squad will play in Humphrey Coliseum, as they host Auburn. Tipoff is 1:30 following Senior Day ceremonies.
Which will take a while this year. In fact, the five upperclassmen being recognized equals the total scholarship seniors of the past three seasons combined. So Senior Day ’16 really can be a celebration for a change. Especially for the trio who have survived those three previous winters and have just begun to enjoy a taste of success.
“I really just started thinking about it,” guard Craig Sword said. “Your last time. Man, I know it’s just hitting me.”
Sword is one of those four-year survivors, along with center Gavin Ware and guard Fred Thomas. They share the senior spotlight with third-year forward Travis Daniels, and second-year forward Johnny Zuppardo; along with manager-turned-walk-on Reggie Patterson. Whatever the length of tenure, their contributions are appreciated by younger classes.
“The seniors did a terrific job this year of leading the way,” freshman guard Malik Newman said. “Showing us young guys what it’s going to take.”
All Dogs take their 2016 home-court bow Saturday with the end of the regular schedule. At 13-16, 6-11 SEC) there isn’t much in the way of post-season stakes left to play for, beyond seeding at the SEC Tournament. To avoid a first-day game in Nashville the Bulldogs not only must win, but need Tennessee to lose at home to Ole Miss. That would make State the #11 seed and earn a unique bye since Missouri will not participate in the conference meet. The odds of a Vol loss rose with news their leading scorer will not play in the finale.
With a loss, or if Tennessee wins, State will drop to #13 and have an instant rematch with Auburn as the only first-day game. That would make scouting simpler for everyone but not be a lot of fun. What would be entertaining is, if they were #11 seed and things fell right, the Bulldogs could have a rubber game on a neutral court with Ole Miss.
Auburn (11-18, 5-12) is for now #13 in the league standings, trailing Tennessee by a game and losing that tie-break as well which locks them into a first-day game no matter what else happens. The Tigers are 11th in SEC scoring and dead-last in defense along with field goal shooting and rebound margin.
Yet, Howland sees more than statistics in this matchup. For a team going nowhere, Auburn is giving everyone fits here at season’s end. “They had a great chance to win at Alabama, they had Texas A&M down ten. So they’re playing well.”
The Tigers have been better since T.J. Dunans (11.4ppg, 3.5apg) returned to the lineup as point guard. Up to then 6-7 Cinmeon Bowers (10.7ppg, 9.8rpg) filled the role, and not so badly either with his driving skills. He’s more productive back at forward now. 6-10 Tyler Harris (14.0ppg, 7.7rpg) works the paint, and Howland predicts guards Horace Spencer and Bryce Brown are going to be SEC forces of the future.
Overall, “They’re good, they’re a problem,” Howland said. “They’re very physical, they have great size. And they switch everything defensively one-through-four, they’re downing all ball screens. And when they get hot offensively they can be very dangerous.”
By the same token, these Bulldogs have proven a dangerous bunch down the stretch. “I’m especially proud of how we’ve grown her in the last six, seven weeks of the season,” Howland said. State certainly has shown resilience all season, handling strings of close losses with poise and continuing to progress.
Even in Wednesday’s 86-78 loss, State battled back from repeated double-digit deficits to keep it close. Ware carried the club with a heroic 28-point, nine-rebound effort, as outside shooting was spotty. The performance backed-up his selection as a finalist for the Howell Trophy to be awarded Monday. Freshman guard Quinndary Weatherspoon is also a finalist, along with Rebel Stefan Moody.
Going into his home finale Ware (16.0ppg, 7.6rpg) is 17th in MSU career scoring and fifth in rebounding. Sword (12.9ppg, 3.8rpg) is 12th in career points and fourth in steals.
A key to State’s late-season resurrection has been Weatherspoon. He’s scored 12.1ppg full-season but in SEC play leads the team at 14.8 points. Weatherspoon is only one trey behind Newman now, 31 to 30. But for Senior Day, it appears Thomas will take his place in the tipoff team as the five seniors start. The freshman isn’t going to complain, either.
This senior class is not going to be recalled as a great one, no small part from circumstances they could not control. A couple of the fourth-year Dogs were signed by a coach who resigned before they reported. All the seniors arrived with another coach in charge…and then for the final campaign had a third coach.
All told, they go into the last regular season game with 50 wins in four years. As Thomas said, “It’s been bad, it’s been good. For the most part it’s been good.”
This overall evaluation likely reflects the flush of end-career successes. And everyone wants to leave the home court on a winning note.
“And hopefully we can make a run in the (SEC) tournament,” Sword suggested.