“Now we’re headed into a stretch with some momentum,” Howland said. “Because we’re coming off a win we had to fight to make happen.”
Fight indeed. Howland’s Bulldog battled back from as much as 19 points down to end up with a 64-59 win over Tennessee. Going into Saturday, the Dogs had lost four of five and had just been embarrassed by rival Ole Miss.
When the visiting Vols ran out to their huge leads in each half Mississippi State’s season seemed as over as the game. State proved the latter wrong. Now they can show there’s a lot left to play for.
They get to show it quickly, too. Again the Bulldogs (14-8, 5-5 SEC) have drawn a Tuesday tipoff and the quicker turnaround. They also are back on the road, visiting Auburn (15-8, 4-6 SEC).
“I’ve watched a lot of Auburn film,” Howland said. “They’re playing well, very talented. So we have a big challenge.”
The Tigers have played well, at times. They also have some quality non-conference wins over UAB, Oklahoma, and TCU a week ago as part of the SEC/Big12 Challenge. League-wise it’s been a roller-coaster of late, though Auburn made a point with two wins over rival Alabama in 14 days.
“They swept Alabama, which we couldn’t get one win against,’ Howland said. “So they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
Auburn is an unpredictable bunch as well with plenty of depth and a plan to use it all. No Tiger ranks among the league’s scoring leaders, yet the team as a whole is fourth-best at 79.0 ppg. Nor is this an efficient offense in shooting percentage; yet only Kentucky has taken more shots for the season so far.
Quite a few of these chances have come off creative defense and averaging almost eight steals with plenty more turnovers forced. And only Vanderbilt has hit more three-pointers in the league.
Of course for the first half of SEC season the Bulldogs lived by making or died from missing three-pointers. In four wins State was 40-of-87 at the arc; the five losses it was 26-of-99. Howland didn’t want a perimeter-first offense, this was just how his team played best. Or, worst.
What changed Saturday was despite 7-of-26 outside shooting the Bulldogs still won, albeit in the hard way of coming back from 19 points down. The difference, particularly after losing to those same Vols two weeks earlier?
“A better job of offensive rebounding, number-one,” Howland said. “Our previous game we had five, Saturday we had 21. And we did a better job defensively on the first shot.”
No Dog did a better job at each than center Schnider Herard. The freshman not only grabbed 15 rebounds total, he practically split them between offensive and defensive ends. Howland had told the team to get Herard more involved, and they did. Even if he only took five shots, he was able to draw fouls and score from the stripe.
Guard Xavian Stapleton sees the more aggressive Herard. “If it goes up to his chest it’s going to be a foul or a bucket, or both.” Since Herard became a starter ten games ago, he has shot 64% and averaged 6.3 rebounds.
Howland inserted Herard to make a more physical lineup. Now State is getting muscle from another source. 6-6 Stapleton has become a force off the bench, scoring tough points or defending the taller guards or if necessary forwards. He also just posted a double-double with 14 points, 11 boards against a Tennessee team which relies on big guards. Auburn may present comparable matchup opportunities.
This is also a game for Quinndary Weatherspoon to play the game is capable of. The sophomore guard has been battling ailments for months, coping with extra defensive attention, and just trying to find some offensive rhythm. Taking away a good night against Missouri, Weatherspoon has shot just 17-of-57 in other four most recent games. That’s 4-of-16 at the arc, too, and he had a eight-game stretch of double-digit scoring snapped Saturday.
Yet. Befitting a veteran on a mostly-new team, Weatherspoon has found all the other ways to produce. He rebounds, he certainly defends hard, and gets everyone involved. If ‘Q’ can regain his touch, this can be a fun February for everyone.
But the Bulldogs also could use a healthy IJ Ready in coming weeks. Maybe more than usual in this matchup, where a senior point guard who has seen every sort of press or trap can keep his team on track. Ready was hobbled by an ankle injury at Alabama first.
Then no sooner did he return to practice than he aggravated an old surgically-repaired back issue. “I was looking right at him,” Howland said. “All of a sudden he was changing direction and ‘ahhhhh!’” The pain came from the same area as the incision for Ready’s back surgery. He missed the whole Tennessee game. Fortunately a Sunday exam showed “no change” Howland reported.
State also hopes to have Lamar Peters, who replaced Ready as starting quarterback, close enough to full speed. The freshman still aches with a hip pointer suffered at Ole Miss, and while he played 34 tough minutes against Tennessee he was 0-of-6 at the arc for four points.
Yet, Peters issued seven assists and gave good enough defense under painful conditions. His fast and physical style are definitely what State needs to handle Tiger pressure. When Howland thinks handle, he doesn’t mean respond and react either.
“We have to do a good job attacking their press. And transition defense will be important. It’s a lot of factors that weigh into our having a chance.”