Beyond that, no miracles were required to make their August Italian tour a complete success. Complete as in four games, four victories, and a many-magnitudes growth in Howland’s second Mississippi State squad. “A great trip,” he said.
“It was a wonderful experience basketball-wise. It was an incredible experience culturally, to be able to take in the history and traditions of Italy.”
Those cultural experiences will be recalled for lifetimes. The basketball experience? While Howland is far from ready to put the 2017 Bulldogs on a SEC court just yet, the team is off to a, ahem, flying start to the upcoming season.
They certainly made a name for themselves in European hoops circles. Despite playing somewhat short-handed, and definitely playing short on cumulative college experience, the Bulldogs beat a pair of squads from Lithuania; routed an Italian all-star team which didn’t shine too brightly; then capped competition by edging a quality Kosovo national team.
“Three of the games were close all the way through,” Howland said. “I don’t think it was SEC talent.” The coach compared the Lithuanians to good mid-major college clubs, and Kosovo was higher level with one of their players a star for a Barcelona club team. “But were they SEC caliber, no.”
They were real opponents, though. Beating anyone, anywhere this far ahead of a season, and with exactly this sort of 2017 roster, gives a priceless boost in…everything.
“It puts us in a much better position going into the season,” Howland said. “Just getting those ten days of practice, now having played four games and played together.”
Not entirely together, though. First off, the roster was down a pair. A pair of freshmen, forward Mario Kegler and forward/post Abdul Ado, were not cleared in time for the trip. Fortunately Kegler did get the good word this week.
“We were ecstatic Monday when he was deemed eligible, and he started classes yesterday,” Howland said. The 6-11 Ado, is still on hold. “We’re hopeful we’re going to have something in the next 48 hours. He’s waiting to clear so he can attend school.” Also unable to play yet was 6-6 transfer guard Xavian Stapleton, still coming back from knee surgery.
Then less than a half into the first game, the Bulldog who owns three of the entire roster’s five varsity letters was lost. Senior point guard IJ Ready heaved something other than a basketball all over the court. Howland first thought the hot-box gym was the cause. Team doctor Mike Mabry thought otherwise and soon Ready learned he had mononucleosis.
At least Ready could remain in Italy and try to enjoy the rest of the trip. Now back home, “He’s on the tail of it so in a couple more weeks he should be OK.”
As the scoreboard showed these setbacks didn’t set back the Bulldogs. Instead Howland got to see his young backcourt adapt and thrive. Freshman Lamar Peters took over the point, overcame a shaky stretch and settled into play like an old Dog.
“He led us in assists and had a better assist-turnover ratio than in practice, I was excited about that,” Howland said. “Defensively he really caused some problems for the other teams’ point guard.” Howland even liked that Peters led the team in total fouls as it showed the kid’s aggressiveness attacking the ball.
As to shooting and scoring, rookie Tyson Carter made his point(s) quickly. The son of Bulldog great Greg Carter made 46% of his trey-tries “and made big shots down the stretch,” Howland said. But the coach was more impressed with other aspects.
“He was our leading defensive rebounder, he had 20 defensive rebounds at a buck-58. He has a nose for the ball. He’s all muscle, 1% body fat. A great feel for the game, he never gets rattled. He played backup minutes at the point as well and did a good job.”
Howland also has good impressions on the third freshman guard, Eli Wright. He didn’t stand out so much in Italy but has caught the coach’s eye with summer work. Especially, his outside shooting.
“When we first got him we worked on his form, he was spending hours on his own time working on it. His three-point shot is much improved.”
Not surprisingly, soph Quinndary Weatherspoon set the team’s offensive tone. Or he did in the first two games. “He had 29 and 34. He was really playing well.” Then, said Howland, troubles adapting to the time change and sleeping loss took a toll. “His last game against Kosovo he didn’t play as well as he could but he made some key plays down the stretch to win.”
Weatherspoon was forced into off-guard roles last winter. An influx of fresh(man) talent figures to free him to play most of his minutes now at small forward, which will let Weatherspoon attack the glass at either end according to his coach.
Evaluating the bigger Bulldogs wasn’t as simple. First, Howland explained, because the five-out European style which has any and all shooting from the perimeter. Newcomers Schnider Herard, Elton Datcher, redshirt Joe Strugg, and soph Aric Holman weren’t suited to chasing their counterparts outside the arc.
When the big Euros stayed inside it, “It was a lot more physical game than they’ve ever played at the high school or AAU level,” Howland said. “There was a lot of pushing and shoving going on.” It was a clear difference from American college basketball where referees limit contact to one hand; the Euros used both and the rest of the arms as well.
So “It was a great learning experience. They needed it.”
Holman came out tops in overall rebounding, per Howland. Datcher “played better than I expected based on his practices, he gave us really good minutes especially rebounding. And Joe gave us some good minutes off the bench.”
Schnider, though, saved his best for the last game. “He had 15 points, eight rebounds, made some big shots.” He also missed a lot of free throws which would have made the final victory a little easier. Howland will use this to prod the 6-9 kid who has already trimmed his bulk from reporting week 290 to a current 253. “He could start a diet loss camp and make a million dollars.”
The trip got minimal build-up as Howland was concerned about international conditions and the fact Americans are an increasing target for overseas incidents. “As it turned out, I’d feel much better about going back to Italy without any issues of safety.”
There were no issues how the Bulldogs were received. Locals made these obvious stand-out into instant stars, as post-game autograph sessions lasted hours and players found themselves posing with street strangers. Support staff came back with ‘souvenirs’ of the two-hour dinners which typically began around 9:00pm.
The only ‘incident’ in fact was when State spent only 35 minutes on one pre-game meal. “The owner was devastated, he couldn’t believe we didn’t stay and enjoy and talk. I’m like we’re on a schedule here! But the culture was so great, the people so nice.” Even players could admire Renaissance architecture, Howland thought.
Of course as a coach he had another sort of construction in mind on this trip.
“It brought us closer together and that’s exactly what you want out of a trip like that. A bonding experience.”