Howland's Dogs Trying to Snap February Skid

For a home team in night-desperate need of success, this isn’t the most encouraging matchup. Then again if Florida must be on the schedule this is likely the best time for Mississippi State to take a shot.

The shot-taking starts at 1:00 Saturday as #13-ranked Florida visits Humphrey Coliseum, with ESPN telecast.

Fans are advised that while a pair of baseball games are also booked, with the Diamond Dogs scheduled for an optimistic 3:30 start after Texas Tech and Western Illinois play at 1:00, basketball parking rules take priority.

Coach Ben Howland’s team has had a rough stretch of it since beating Tennessee here at home. The Bulldogs have lost at Auburn, to South Carolina, and at Georgia. Now 14-11, 5-8 SEC with five-plus-one scheduled games left State certainly ought to be able at least to surpass the 14-win results of Howland’s first season.

Anything beyond and better? That has become an increasingly tall task for a squad that has dropped seven of the last nine chances. Yet…

“We’re not that far away,” Howland said. “It’s not like I’m killing these guys because they’re not competing. We only had one game I felt that way. They’re right there, we just have to keep battling.”

This sounds optimistic in light of Mississippi State’s struggles. At the same time Howland sees the positives to optimize even after defeats. Close ones, he reminds.

“And both of our last two games, we could have won either. It’s not like we were blown-out.”

But. Saturday brings a Gator team to town that can blow a lot of people out of any arena. After a couple of SEC toe-stubbings Florida (21-5, 11-2) has gone on a February tear, winning seven-straight and holding their shared first place in the SEC with Kentucky. The Gators have that tiebreak for now, with a February 25 rematch in Lexington ahead.

“They’re super-athletic,” Howland said. “Just matching up with the guards, Allen and Hill. The point guard off the bench is having a great year. Their threes and fours, Justin Leon is a good shooter and Robinson is an incredible athlete. Obviously Barry has added a lot as a fifth-year transfer, he’s a real good scoring players. They have a lot of guys to match up with.”

Just not as many as before. The Gators arrive short-handed. Injuries have removed both a post player and a guard from their gameplan. Howland said these losses, particularly the center, will be tough come NCAA Tournament season. For now, Florida depth should suffice just fine.

Defensively, Howland said, Florida will constantly switch their one-through-four positions on screens or handoffs. “They’ll get out and pressure you. And they have great length. They’re very good in transition offense and a great offensive rebounding team.”

Mississippi State hasn’t knocked-off a ranked opponent since 2011. Of course being in the SEC they have only played two this year, losing at home to both Kentucky and South Carolina. Florida is playing better than either at this mid-month point.

The Bulldogs have had several stretches of individuals playing well. Collectively, not enough have put their prime times together in situations with potential. Even after fixing some of the first-half issues to tie or lead in their last two games, State hasn’t been able to sustain success.

It’s been a tough few weeks for Holman’s few veterans. Lone senior and point guard IJ Ready has returned from a four-game absence (ankle, back spasms) and played 22 minutes Tuesday. He limited his shots and scored four points with an assist, and clearly wasn’t near full-strength.

But with Bulldog ballhandling and offensive movement in trouble the oldest Dog has to play. “I still feel IJ is just getting back to form,” Howland said.

Sophomore Quinndary Weatherspoon hasn’t been on form too often with his own, more nagging health problems. There have been flashes of what was expected, like 29 points against Missouri in a win or 25 at Auburn in defeat. Those infrequent efforts make his SEC stats better than his usual play though, at 43% shooting and 36% arc-accuracy. He still leads in team scoring at 16.7 points.

But the inconsistency has grated on Weatherspoon more than his coach. Hurting or not ‘Q’ has come in for extra shooting and other drills just the same, and Howland won’t try to change the shooting at this point, or much else. What tops his to-do list is Weatherspoon’s tendency to force drives and passes.

“We’ve talked about a couple of his turnovers in the last game,” Howland said. “When he penetrates he’s looking inside when typically you want to look outside and kick it out.” Trying to get his team going early has also resulted in some fast fouls for Weatherspoon, forcing him to dial back on aggressiveness everywhere.

Mississippi State had hoped that after a shortened freshman season forward Aric Holman would have a strong sophomore year. He was on a good track too with double-digit points in that long-ago streak of three SEC wins. Since then Holman has often vanished on offense, or entirely as in three of the last four games he has fouled-out.

Yet even in these nine slower games Holman has shot 50% even and added the occasional trey, with solid defensive rebounding.

If the older Dogs can regain their games, freshmen like center Schnider Herard, swingman Mario Kegler, and point guard Lamar Peters have flashed enough firepower to make a competitive team. All have markedly better SEC stats than their all-season averages.

Mississippi State stays home for another Tuesday contest, hosting Ole Miss at 8:00.

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