Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

State Programs Meet for First Time Since 2001 with 8:00 Tip in Coliseum

There’s a minor irony here for Ben Howland. Because the last time Mississippi State played, and defeated, Southern Mississippi was in the 2001 National Invitation Tournament. Five evenings later those Bulldogs came to Pittsburgh for the second round and beat Howland’s Panthers.

Now Howland is coaching State, and while Monday’s matchup isn’t a tourney game it still has some stakes for the in-state programs. These Bulldogs and Golden Eagles renew the long, long-dormant series and on a neutral floor in Jackson. Tipoff is 8:00 for ESPNU.

How long-dormant? No scholarship Bulldog was even in elementary school when the ’01 team took that first-round NIT game 75-68 in Humphrey Coliseum. For that matter only senior guard IJ Ready had been born when the programs last played a regular-season game, in December 1996 with State winning in Hattiesburg.

But this renewal begins a four-year series with all games to be played in the Mississippi Coliseum. Mississippi State leads 14-4 in the intermittent rivalry, and is 17-6 in all games played in the Jackson arena.

Howland and squad aren’t thinking ahead, or behind either. Mississippi State (6-3) is running out of time and games to prepare for SEC season, as well as stockpile non-conference wins. The Bulldogs missed a good chance last Wednesday, falling 67-65 at home to East Tennessee State on a last-second putback.

That ended a three-win streak going into fall finals break, and was not how Howland wanted to resume the schedule. Guard Quinndary Weatherspoon certainly wants to put on a better show for his home-area family and fans than his last home court appearance.

Weatherspoon missed six of his first seven shots and finished 3-of-14, scoring over half his 13 points at the foul line. It was utterly out-of-style for the sophomore guard. After missing two games with an injured left (off-hand) wrist Weatherspoon came back to hit 11 of 19 shots in two wins.

Struggles by the team’s leading scorer (now 17.6ppg) may have sapped some squad confidence. “He’s our best player, we expect so much out of him because of that,” said Howland. “But he’s just a sophomore.” A soph only six points away from 500 in his still-early career, though, so expectations are natural.

“I’m going to get in the gym and get a couple of hundred shots up, and get ready for Jackson,” promised Weatherspoon.

A year ago struggles by the top Dog would have been fatal. Mississippi State fortunately has more offensive options in Howland’s second season. Freshman guard Lamar Peters (9.7ppg) has been a bench boost scoring double-digits in his last five games and making 18-of-31 at the arc. Fellow rookie Tyson Carter (10.2ppg) began well with two good debut games only to go cold in December, but the kid can make plays.

Closer to the goal, Howland wants forward Aric Holman to continue developing. Just, a little faster. In the defeat the sophomore still had 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and blocked four balls to go with his six board. “Aric is just getting more experience,” Howland said.

But freshman Mario Kegler is getting his experience faster, and often better. The big guard is playing more forward out of necessity and making it work with 40 points the last three games and 15 rebounds. Kegler is a matchup nightmare for many teams, hitting 41% of his trey-tries.

And, said point guard Ready, this is another team tone-setter. “Mario knows what he’s doing, and he talks a lot at practice. And he’s pretty good.”

Southern Mississippi is 3-5 coming into Monday, after a 71-64 loss to former conference rival Tulane.

As said, the pre-league schedule is running out fast for State. They have two more home games before the calendar turns, hosting Morehead State on Thursday; then Missouri-Kansas City on the 29th.

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