No, don’t read that as Mississippi State’s coach limiting his SEC Tournament ambitions. Just the opposite. An old dog, if a first-year Dog, like Howland knows better than most how these things work. His Bulldogs can’t play a second game in Nashville if they don’t take care of Thursday’s meeting with Georgia.
Proof that Howland is no down-beat Dog comes in his attitude about tournament time. Any tournament time, conference or NCAA or whatever.
“Post-season is always fun,” proclaims a coach who has had his share of successes in such situations. “It’s always a great season and a great opportunity. I obviously haven’t coached yet in the SEC Tournament, so this is a first for me and my staff.”
Mississippi State does not have to play on the first day of this year’s meet. By winning five of their last eight conference games, and with a bit of help, the Bulldogs (14-16, 7-11 SEC) are #11 seed. That normally would still mean a first-round game Wednesday but Missouri’s opting-out of the tournament spares State having to show up so soon. Instead they get an automatic pass to the second round where they meet #6 seed Georgia (17-12, 10-8). Tip time is guesstimated at 8:30ct.
It’s the late-schedule surge that has the Bulldogs themselves talking about making some sort of run this week. Howland doesn’t want to mute the excitement at all. He just wants the team entirely ready for the late Thursday tipoff and one particular opponent.
“We have been playing better down the stretch,” Howland said. “And hopefully we’ll play our best game, which we need to do against a Georgia team that’s fighting to get in the NCAA Tournament.”
The other Bulldogs do have larger ambitions, though their chances of a NCAA berth are slim at best and entirely hinging on a run of their own. Georgia has their own March momentum too with three-straight wins including Alabama and South Carolina, two teams also scrambling for an at-large bid.
These Bulldogs matched up in Starkville on February 13, and it did not go well for the home team. At all. “We really played poorly and a lot of that had to do with them,” Howland said. Georgia took a 66-57 decision that began slowly for both sides, but saw Georgia get enough done before halftime to take control.
“We struggled to score big time and attacked their zone poorly,” said Howland. “They really handled us, their zone and physicality were problems.” Georgia is just as physical now with Yante Maten (15.9ppg) and Derek Ogbeide on the frontcourt, and do-everything Charles Mann (10.4) working inside and outside. Unlike, say, South Carolina which plods and passes in the post, Georgia’s bigger Dogs move and attack on their own.
They also play a good matchup-style zone that gave State fits the first time. The MSU Dogs were 21-of-68 shooting against that zone, and 8-of-28 at the arc. But Howland said having seen it, his team can now prepare better for a matchup than the first time.
And, “If I’m a shooter I love playing against a zone.”
Outside shooting hasn’t always been a strong point this season but there are Bulldogs who have improved their accuracy through the long regular schedule. One, guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, has found the range much better down the stretch and as a result become State’s leading SEC scorer at 14.9ppg. He’s also hitting 42% of his trey-tries in league play, compared to 35% in pre-SEC games. Weatherspoon was rewarded by selection to the league’s All-Freshman team this week.
Now State hopes to see classmate Malik Newman do the same sort of shooting and scoring in tournament play as he ended the regular season. Newman (11.5ppg season) scored 17 last Saturday making 3-of-4 threes. That was almost as many points as the freshman scored in the previous four games combined, as Newman has struggled with back issues.
An extra day to rest should do Newman good. Ditto for IJ Ready. The small point guard has taken a beating in SEC season but battled through. He’s giving 9.1 points a game, but more to Howland’s point has dialed-back on his own shooting and looked for open teammates. So since missing an early-February game with ailments, Ready has averaged over five assists.
This was after Howland harped on Ready being a pass-first, shoot-second point guard. Now that he’s made the transition, “OK, you can’t go back to that other guy,” the coach said.
Howland expected some disappointments in this first State season. He still is stung that senior center Gavin Ware (15.8ppg, 7.7rpg, 63%fgs) was not named All-SEC after his best year as a Bulldog. Not that he wasn’t first-team, though Howland thought him worthy; Ware did not make any of the all-league squads.
Ware can show this was a mistake if he shows-up in Nashville playing as he has the last three games, shooting 22-of-33 with 33 rebounds.
Nobody expected guard Craig Sword would make all-league this year. Yet the senior’s play has been completely key to Bulldog success. Sword (12.8ppg, 3.8rpg, 89 assists, 40 steals) is not the most efficient player. He’s just the most passionate, and his energy is what keeps the club going many evenings.
For Sword, Ware, and three fellow scholarship seniors, the energy should be peaking. Barring a run to the title their college careers end this week. For that matter freshman Newman won’t or more likely can’t say for now if he too will be leaving, in his case for professional basketball.
Howland can set aside any such concerns to next week, though. This coach operates in the present when tournament time begins.
“This is a whole new year. It’s a single game. I don’t think what’s happened in the past will affect or preparations. We want to win this game badly, and so do they.”
Thursday’s winner advances to a same-time Friday matchup with South Carolina.