Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Bulldogs Test Different Lineup in Rematch at Alabama

It was a loss. So no Dog calls that a success. But growing teams find good things in defeats, and what Mario Kegler took from the Kentucky game was good word indeed.

“Just continue to do better what I did that game. And do it more.”

This gifted freshman is doing exactly that. Kegler has built on an impressive evening against the league’s leader with two more strong showings. “I’m excited about his progress,” Coach Ben Howland said.

He should be. After an erratic start to his first SEC season, Mississippi State’s rookie forward has come on strong. In the last three games Kegler has averaged 13.0 points on 56% shooting with 5.3 boards.

“I’m comfortable right now,” Kegler said. “I’ve got the hang of it, playing in a lot of games.”

Not just playing. Asked by a write not familiar with team or Kegler how much hope had been put in the prized signee out of Jackson, by way of Oak Hill Academy, “He’s started every game,” Howland responded drily. “So that’s the answer to that one.”

Kegler was a steady starter and producer in pre-SEC season, too. Not spectacular maybe, though this is as much a reflection on a still-gelling squad’s youthful makeup. Kegler himself spent a lot of November and December out of his natural small forward position, too.

“I started off good, kind of went down,” Kegler described it. “I feel like I’m getting my rhythm now and it’s coming along good.”

His personal rhythm has come along faster since Howland adjusted the lineup, going with fellow freshman Schnider Herard at center and moving Aric Holman to true forward. That move was made after State’s opening SEC loss to Alabama, and since then the Dogs have gone 4-2.

Kegler will still end up on the baseline in stretches for foul troubles with Bulldog posts or matchups or whatever. “I think Mario has improved as our season’s progressed,” Howland said. “We’re playing him a lot of minutes out of position because that’s the way we are. But I’m excited about his progress.”

Things got really exciting when Kegler challenged a bunch of long, tall, fast Wildcats and came away with 13 points and eight boards. Back on the home court this week, he gave another well-rounded performance with 16 points and five rebounds in beating Missouri. And while guard Lamar Peters’ brilliant three-point streak got all the second half attention…it was Kegler’s trey that ignited things.

“That shot in the corner really gave us momentum,” said Howland. “Boom, he knocks it down.” Kegler isn’t the first outside-option but has knocked down 22 longballs so far.

What had Howland happier though was Kegler’s work at the other end of the floor. “Playing 34 minutes, and a lot of what he did out there isn’t measured in statistics because of his defense. He’s one of our best defenders and that bodes well for his future.” Kegler is making himself a better rebounder, too, getting smarter about reading shots and finding positions to catch caroms.

On top of that, this is a kid who only wants to improve. After the frustrating loss at Tennessee the team had Sunday off. Yet, “He was in here last night, shooting on his own,” Howland said.

This reflects the drive which made Kegler the top-rated Mississippi prospect of 2015 and a top-ten national forward. It was his choice to spend a winter at Oak Hill before college. “I always wanted to play there, and I got that opportunity. It was great.”

It worked out great for Mississippi State, too. Because even Kegler can’t say for sure if he would have signed with the in-state team right out of Callaway HS. The arrival of Howland changed everything.

“I always liked State, but when he got the job…” Kegler said. “I felt I had a good chance to come in and play. And it’s home. I’ve been very happy playing at Mississippi State. I love the people here.”

Bulldog basketball loves the potential on display from Kegler, as well as the rest of the active freshman class combined with two standout sophomores. Oh, and the redshirt presence of center Abdul Ado reminds how much more can be expected after another winter together.

First, though…there is plenty season still ahead. The Bulldogs (13-6, 4-3) also begin ‘rematch’ games tomorrow at Alabama (12-7, 5-2). The Crimson Tide handed State a ten-point loss back on January 3 which led to some of Howland’s lineup and rotation changes.

Now these revamped Dogs take another shot, albeit on the road and against an unpredictable host. Alabama lost by 20 at Auburn, then whipped Georgia by the same margin this week. And speaking of unpredictable, in round-one State was 4-of-21 at the arc and crushed on the glass 43 to 26.

Howland can’t ‘script’ how his team will shoot any game but he has pushed his players to rebound better. This is another chance for them to show what’s been learned since.

Tipoff at Coleman Coliseum is 5:00 for the SEC Network.

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