“So it was really nice to see everybody out there,” the coach said.
Really, really nice. Health is improving, fall finals were successful…and Howland has a little time to get some real work done. “Yesterday was the first day we’ve had everybody to practice.”
This doesn’t mean everybody is available for Wednesday’s game. Mississippi State (6-2) resumes the season at 7:00 tomorrow evening hosting East Tennessee State (7-2) for the SEC Network. Howland will still have to keep a couple of Dogs on the bench, one of them for the rest of the season in fact.
Though a non-qualifier redshirt year that center Abdul Ado is enduring looks rather ironic after fall grades were posted. Ado scored a perfect 4.00 for his 15 freshman hours. Further irony, he only needed nine hours to be granted practice eligibility for the rest of the schedule.
Howland is sure to remind all how a straight-A freshman missed out on NCAA clearance. What matters now is getting the 6-11 Nigeria native involved again at practice. Ado had to sit that out up to now again per rules. Howland is happy just to get this addition to the practice roster, and challenge active frosh big men Schnider Herard and E.J. Datcher.
“This gives them a real big athletic body to compete against,” Howland said. “But he has no idea what we’re running. So now we’ve got to get him plugged in outside of practice really to learn his responsibilities.” At the same time there aren’t many ‘scout team’ posts of Ado’s abilities to test teammates against.
More positive news is the increased activity by big guard Xavian Stapleton, now up to an hour-and-half of practicing as he continues the long, long recovery from multiple knee surgeries. Howland said Stapleton “was dominant at times” Monday. Other times the sophomore showed frustrations he isn’t making the same plays as in his freshman year at Louisiana Tech.
“I have to keep reminding him it’s been 18 months since he played at the college level,” said Howland. “Let’s stay healthy and be smart and move forward at a reasonable pace.” At the same time the coach is a bit anxious to activate Stapleton ASAP, because he can work at big guard, small forward, even some big forward in matchups. “Like we do with Mario Kegler. It’s just knowing the sets and plays.”
At the same time Stapleton is already helping by giving Quinndary Weatherspoon a much tougher practice competitor on defense. Howland anticipates putting Stapleton on the court for the December 22 home game with Morehead State.
That’s assuming need doesn’t arise from other injuries of course. Every practice presents risks apparently. Howland said Weatherspoon banged knees with a teammate yesterday, and point guard IJ Ready had a similar accident to go with his regular bumps and bruises.
Weatherspoon is State’s ongoing story of pre-conference play. Thought to be done after a left-wrist injury Thanksgiving weekend, the sophomore guard returned after two missed games and continues to set the squad pace in, well, almost everything. He’s averaging 18.3 points on 50% shooting (39.3% arc) and playing the best perimeter defense of all Dogs. Coaching hearts had to miss a beat or two when Weatherspoon banged that knee.
But Howland doesn’t want to dial-back the intensity. The practice time is too valuable, to the point State worked around finals week demands with scattered sessions and even a two-a-day. “In the morning we went through all our sets. And we still don’t even know that well. With a young team a part of that is guys learning how to learn.”
Mississippi State could have played since Friday evening if wished, and Howland definitely did not. He wanted a longer layoff.
“I’m glad we didn’t play a game coming off finals, because you’re still fried from studying.”
Now the challenge is not getting burned by Southern Conference guests. The Buccaneers are predicted to finish second in their league, and off to the program’s fastest start since 1990-91. Their projected lineup shows three seniors and a junior—“They’re an older team,” Howland said. And there is a lot more varied experience here than usual for the ages.
ETSU features no less than three Division I transfers, and four more junior college recruits. It’s the seco guys that are boosting the Bucs now with two in the starting lineup, post Hanner Mosquera-Perea (Indiana) and forward Tevin Glass (Wichita State). Backup center Peter Jurkin also hails from Indiana.
“They’re very talented,” Howland said. “They’re a problem. Their starting two (senior T.J. Cromer) can really shoot the ball. I really like their point guard (Desonta) Bradford. They have depth, too. And their coach was in this league at Tennessee and will have familiarity with what it takes to win in this conference.”
The Bulldogs have four games left to prepare for this conference’s schedule. Next-up will be Monday evening in Jackson as Mississippi State renews the long-dormant series with Southern Mississippi.