Well, any wait is over. Mississippi State (14-15, 5-12 SEC) hosts the return-game Saturday with a 5:00 tipoff for the SEC Network. Nor will either have to wait too long before playing again as both the Dogs and LSU (10-19, 2-15) are locked into first-day games at the SEC Tournament.
Howland’s team is assured of the #12 seed whatever happens in the finale. LSU will be either 13th or 14th next Wednesday and, pending Missouri’s own results, could even be readying for a round-three with State.
The real eternity has been what these Bulldogs have endured of late. Since opening February with a win over Tennessee, they have lost all seven contests. This would be painful enough for a sophomore/freshman squad, but the manner of most defeats has amplified frustrations.
Save for last Saturday at Vanderbilt, a 77-48 blowout, the Bulldogs have been quite competitive. Those other six setbacks have been by a combined 33 points. So on the whole Howland’s team has kept to their tasks and played as best they could. Or as much as they could.
To that topic Howland said Quinndary Weatherspoon (16.5ppg) is likely to return to action. The sophomore guard and team-leading scorer missed Tuesday’s six-point loss at South Carolina with a sprained ankle/foot. He did practice Thursday and Howland said a few days off showed in springier steps…but also a little loss of conditioning. That matters because Weatherspoon leads the team in 30-point games, too.
State needs Weatherspoon at full-speed because after several miserable shooting weeks he has revamped his attack to go inside more often for points and kept up the average. Rookie Tyson Carter (7.0ppg) has tried to pick up some of that slack and did get 11 points at Columbia. And since returning from a short suspension guard Eli Wright has contributed some baskets off the bench as well.
But the real strain has fallen on guard Lamar Peters here at the end of his freshman year. Forced to play more minutes than planned, and forcing a few more shots than necessary, Peters over the last four games is 7-of-35 overall and 3-of-21 at the arc. Howland said the hip pointer suffered January 31 has hampered Peters’ shooting somewhat.
“And some of it is his shot selection,” the coach added. Mostly though Peters just isn’t putting enough air under his long balls, whether from the tear or the wear or more likely both. “It’s all about more arc on his shot,” Howland said.
Two months ago it was State’s front line coming up big. Forward Mario Kegler had 11 points and seven boards; new starting center Schnider Herard eight and four; and forward Aric Holman was MVP with 17 points and nine rebounds. Holman (8.2, 6.1rpg) hasn’t come close to such a game since. In fact his last double-digit output was on January 17 in what at the time was a third-straight SEC win for State. It is probably not a coincidence the Dogs have sputtered since.
State won in Baton Rouge 95-78 with maybe its best-balanced offense of all SEC season, and certainly one of the better defensive efforts. That loss began a 15-game drought for the Tigers, too. Only this week, in a 92-82 upset of sorts over Tennessee, the LSU’s losing streak stop. Though, Howland said, the weekend before “They should have beat Georgia on the road, a one-point lead with six seconds left.” Instead the other Dogs escaped 82-80.
Still Howland sees a Tiger team playing better now and maybe with some confidence at last. “Better than when we played them for sure. Their perimeter players are talented and their big guy’s a problem inside. And they have more depth.”
The big guy is 6-10 Duop Reath, averaging 12.2 and 6.2 who had a 19/13 show against State in defeat. Guard Antonio Blakeney leads the club with 17.5 points, just about what he put up on the Dogs.
“They just seem together,” Howland said. “And they’re young, they’ve matured. So they probably have a little confidence her coming off that win against Tennessee.”
But back to the ‘eternity’ angle. Saturday is Senior Day and there will be just one uniformed upperclassman recognized at the Hump. Guard IJ Ready deserves all available applause, and as much for sheer persistence as any achievements.
Not that the latter lacks as Ready is top-ten in career assists and steals at State. Health has simply failed him too often and even now career-long back problems dog the Dog. He has missed 15 full games over four years, lost many more minutes in the 110 active games, and taken beatings a 5-11, 166-pounder can expect under even full-strength conditions.
“I’ve played a lot of basketball here,” said Ready. “I’ve missed out a lot with injuries, but I wouldn’t change it for nothing.”
Well, one thing. The record. “I haven’t had a winning season here,” Ready said. It is the result of simple bad timing, joining a program in total transition and only now beginning to see signs of better things ahead…just as he leaves.
Ready won’t be leaving the game, Howland said. “He’s going to be a coach, and a very successful coach. We’re going to miss his leadership. He’s maintained a very positive influence on our team this year at all times.”
So even if the on-court career could have been far more positive, Ready really savors the experience. “A lot of friendship and brotherhood. I don’t think it gets any better in college than here in Starkville.”
Though, walking off his home court with a final win would make it better tomorrow.