Mississippi State is indeed playing Tuesday evening, with Alabama coming to Humphrey Coliseum. Tipoff is 7:30 for the SEC Network. This the first full week of action for the full league, as the Bulldogs (9-3) and Crimson Tide (7-5) are among the four conference clubs yet to have SEC action.
So, “A whole new season now,” said Howland. “Each year there’s four seasons within a season. You hope to be involved with all of them.”
If Howland’s second Bulldog team is to have any opportunity for that fourth and final season, i.e. tournament time, they must navigate the SEC schedule successfully. Certainly State needs to do what this program has struggled with all decade: win matchups with comparable conference clubs and own the home court.
The first Howland squad made progress in that direction. They went 7-11 SEC and 5-4 in the Hump. Oddly none of the home wins were against Alabama, yet State did knock off the Tide in Tuscaloosa.
But comparing clubs in this case is mostly meaningless. Year-two has a very different lineup and roster for Howland to work with. When healthy it has worked well enough to win five of six December games, most recently a whipping of visiting Missouri-Kansas City.
“Obviously this is going to be exciting for our team,” Howland said. “The level of competition steps up every night, starting with Alabama which has very good personnel, is very well-coached.”
Alabama is also well-tested even if that has brought a share of fails. Losses to Dayton, Valparaiso, Texas, Oregon, and Clemson are no shames and the margins have been respectable. “They’ve played a very difficult schedule.”
Howland calls the Tide a “big, strong, physical” and isn’t exaggerating. The frontcourt features 6-7 Braxton Key with 6-9 Donta Hall combining for almost 11 rebounds and 16 points. The backcourt has size as well, or will with the return of 6-3 shooter Corban Collins (8.4ppg, 15 treys) after a two game injury absence. His place has been taken temporarily by 5-10 coach’s son Avery Johnson.
6-5 Dazon Ingram tops this balanced scoring sheet at 9.7ppg, with 6-7 swingman Riley Norris (7.8, 4.2rpg) a mismatch in all sorts of ways.
“And coming with Shannon Hale off the bench, he can really score and shoot the ball,” Howland said, adding that Alabama’s penchant to post-up their bigger guards will be another challenge.
At the same time, Mississippi State has the makings of more mismatches as 2017 dawns. Guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (19.1ppg, 21 treys) has come back from his two-game absence with a vengeance, scoring double-digits each night with 27 and 25 the last two wins. The injured left-wrist ligament isn’t hampering his aim a bit as in the last three outings Weatherspoon is 10-of-15 at the arc and 23-of-40 overall. In his 1-1/2 seasons State is 6-1 when Weatherspoon gets to 20 points.
This isn’t a one-Dog backcourt though. Point guard IJ Ready (10.7ppg) is having a career year. While his scoring is up just a point or so, his shooting is greatly improved at 47.1%. In the last three games Ready has hit 12-of-21 and most of that is well inside the arc.
Outside it is where freshmen Tyson Carter (10.1ppg) and Lamar Peters (9.3) are making their marks. Peters in fact now has the team-lead with 23 treys despite missing two games for suspensions and coming off the bench. His fast development lets Howland go with a twin-point guard attack as needed.
And now with Xavian Stapleton (7.3ppg) healthy enough to play quality minutes State can put a bigger, stronger guard on the court in rotations. Of course forward/guard Mario Kegler (9.4ppg, 5.5rpg) swings between the position as well.
It’s just that his 230-pound frame is needed closer to the goal so far, complementing forward Aric Holman (10.0, 6.5). This is where freshmen Schnider Herard and E.J. Datcher need to accelerate their development and give Howland some real size around the rim.
Now all development will be done in games. State had the holidays to address some items and it likely frustrates the coach that “We’re still working on the very basic fundamentals” in areas such as simply blocking out a defender on shots. That more than anything affirms the youth, and lack of lower-level training for that matter, in State’s roster.
Still, “We’re adding some things offensively to our playbook, in things we can run,” Howland said. More will be added too, because introductions to college basketball are done. Forget how raw this roster is on paper.
“By the time we get to January they’re not like true freshmen,” Howland said. “Freshmen usually have to learn their way. Not in our case. Because of that a year from now they’ll be much better off.”
For now, though, these Dogs will try to score the first home-court win over Alabama since 2012.