Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

State Tries Snapping Short Skid Against League-Winless Missouri

They’re going to make mistakes. Ben Howland understands. He simply wants his team to understand this. “We have to err on the side of aggression.”

It needs to be a more aggressive, and more productive, Bulldog bunch hitting the court from now on. Beginning Wednesday in fact, when Mississippi State (12-6, 3-3 SEC) hosts Missouri (5-13, 0-6). Game time is 6:00ct for SEC Network.

Howland is not looking to take out any frustrations on the struggling Tigers. He is looking for a team which takes tipoff with the right sort of aggressive attitude to any and all games.

“Just competing and being physical and tough,” Howland said. “And having pride in every single thing you do.”

The Bulldogs presumably got their coach’s message in a vigorous Monday practice which Howland briefly considered opening for media viewing…then wisely reconsidered. After a Sunday break, he predicted—if that’s the word for it—a “very spirited, competitive practice.”

This is not punishment for a letdown sort of loss at Tennessee. Call it more a prodding of player pride in their craft and their club. The 17-point setback to a very comparable Volunteer team showed Howland a need to push everyone to push themselves here in a fragile point of the season.

Besides, “The best teams I’ve coached were always competing against each other,” Howland said.

Mississippi State still has much to compete for with, as the coach noted, six weeks left on the schedule. Even in losses to Kentucky and at Tennessee the Bulldog RPI has risen into the 90s, for one thing.

That’s long, long way from rational NCAA Tournament talk of course. It is within striking distance of NIT consideration and the Bulldogs can improve that position with each win. Or, by avoiding bad losses.

Letting Wednesday go wrong would be one. Life in this league hasn’t been kind to Missouri basketball, a sport they ought have been competitive from year-one. Instead another January finds the Tigers in a position State has known too well in recent seasons, of being just a spoiler of other SEC ambitions.

Which, Howland warns, they can do. Missouri nearly tripped up Ole Miss in a 74-71 battle showing, MSU’s coach said, “Never give up, never quit. They keep battling back at you. That really worries me. They haven’t won a SEC game coming into here, and they’re tough.”

Mississippi State has won its last three games in the series, including two in Rick Ray’s final campaign and a 76-62 victory in Columbia by Howland’s first team.

His second squad has made some vital strides to be sure. This sixth lineup has proven the longest-lasting edition with six games together and was off to a 3-1 SEC start. Howland doesn’t seem eager to change again after a couple of losses, but neither is he locked into one lineup.

Or not for strict positional matchups, anyway. He is, it seems, seeking a fivesome with the right degree of aggression.

Because “The number-one principle is play hard.”

There’s more than just effort involved. Yet Howland might be blaming himself for muting some of the aggression, unintentionally. State’s staff erred one might say on the side of instruction over effort. With a freshman-sophomore roster of great gifts and greater potential it is natural.

“With a young team you’re trying to teach so much,” Howland said. “But we have to defend and rebound to have a chance to win in this league.” Those two aspects are much more effort than teaching. For SEC season so far State is being beaten on the boards 236 to 197.

Getting more shots per game based on better rebounding has allowed opponents to make up for being slightly out-shot…though giving up 46% SEC accuracy is not great defense either. So, as much as Howland wants to keep evolving his young team’s offensive abilities, the practice focus must adjust.

“It all starts for us on the defensive end.”

It might be called ‘smarter’ defense though. It is worth noting that in each of the last losses a key starter snagged two fast fouls. State has the depth this year to plug in another player, but it does still impact both gameplans and defensive effort.

One positive from Tennessee was getting 20 strong minutes from freshman center Schnider Herard, with 14 points and 11 rebounds. That included seven defensive boards. Herard avoided foul issues mostly and was more active on each end. His backup E.J. Datcher grabbed four fouls in just nine minutes, though, so in the post at least Howland needs smart aggression.

The players Howland is pushing hardest are his sophomore veterans. There are no complaints with guard Quinndary Weatherspoon’s offense. ‘Q’ has averaged 14.2 points on 49% SEC shooting and is getting to the foul line. But one rebound Saturday was not what Howland wanted from a physical off-guard. This, even allowing that the injured left wrist will bother Weatherspoon, and that he has to play on increasingly-sore knees and legs.

“But it is what it is,” Howland said. What forward Aric Holman was at Tennessee wasn’t acceptable, with four points in 18 minutes and some out-of-synch shot selections. Howland said while awaiting takeoff Saturday he made Weatherspoon and Holman watch a quick game review with their head coach, as much making a point about leadership expectations as evaluating everyone.

The good news is Weatherspoon responded with a “great” noon workout Monday with staff that reminded how much there still is to be tapped. Other Dogs seemed to get the message. Freshman wingman Mario Kegler showed up at the gym Sunday evening to put up extra shots, for one example. “He’s started every game,” Howland reminded.

Starters trying to improve with or without supervision is one good sign. Competing harder in practice is another. Make no mistake, from now on Howland requires Bulldogs to go get aggressive.

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