Ben Howland: An Odd Fit That Might Just Work Out For Mississippi State

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 24th, 2015

Several weeks ago I wrote on this microsite that it was shaping up to be the rare offseason where no SEC schools would be welcoming new coaches. That turned out to be a very incorrect notion. Anthony Grant was fired by Alabama on Selection Sunday and Mississippi State followed that up about a week later by announcing that Rick Ray would not be given a fourth year at the helm in Starkville. Ray’s firing registered higher on the “surprise meter” than that of Grant — the Bulldogs had just posted their best SEC record during his tenure (6-12), were expected to return an experienced nucleus of core players, and had signed a trio of three-star prospects in next year’s class. That clearly wasn’t enough for athletic director Scott Stricklin, and it did not take the school very long to name former Pitt and UCLA head coach Ben Howland as its next men’s basketball coach. Howland was loosely connected to seemingly every major job that opened a year ago but he was reportedly never seriously considered at any of Missouri, Tennessee or Marquette. He recently told USA Today that he regretted turning down three schools last offseason (one of these appears to have been Oregon State), two of which were in the process of rebuilding. This year Howland wasn’t willing to wait around, jumping on the first job opportunity that came his way.

Ben Howland, UCLA

Ben Howland inherits a Mississippi State program that struggled under Rick Ray (Kelvin Kuo/US Presswire)

Is this a good fit? For one, the Bulldogs couldn’t have landed a more accomplished coach, what with Howland’s three Final Fours at UCLA, two Sweet Sixteens at Pitt and another NCAA Tournament appearance at Northern Arizona. At the same time, the Bulldogs would also be hard-pressed to find a coach with more baggage, primarily stemming from a 2012 Sports Illustrated story that alleged that Howland had let things spin severely out of control in Westwood. Also working against him is that he has no real ties to the SEC nor the South other than his hiring of former UCLA and LSU assistant Korey McCray, who made his name as the coach of the influential AAU program Atlanta Celtics. Still, the move has been roundly praised by writers. Howland’s adaptability to his geography seems to be a strong suit, as he’s won on the West Coast, Southwest and the Northeast.

The Bulldogs may also not be as far into the college basketball wilderness as some think. DePaul — which could have been another possibility — may have more long-term history, but Mississippi State is the program with more recent success (and more success than many SEC schools since the 1990s). Richard Williams led the Bulldogs to the Final Four in 1996. Rick Stansbury kept the Bulldogs competitive for much of the 2000s, winning at least 20 games nine times and reaching six NCAA Tournaments. Those aren’t threadbare results, especially for a conference that has struggled to produce consistently successful programs. What this is to say is that it makes some sense that Howland believes he can build a winner in Starkville. That the SEC still lacks proven, elite programs outside of Kentucky and Florida doesn’t hurt his chances of a quick rebuild either. He will need to start with lesser-regarded, “chip on their shoulder” players, much like those who populated his teams at Pitt, but this could play well in a league that is in many ways wide open beyond the very top. It doesn’t figure that he’ll need to land a bunch of elite recruits to get the kind of results that will qualify as a success.

The current roster will need to rework itself in the wake of this move, but Howland should have some talented players to work with in his first season. Assuming they don’t transfer, Craig Sword and Gavin Ware will make for a solid senior duo. He told USA Today he isn’t committed to a slow-paced offense and putting the ball in the basket will be the first thing he needs to fix. Ray’s teams consistently struggled to score, ending the season ranked 326th, 260th and 253th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, respectively, over his three seasons. Much of that was tied to the Bulldogs’ inability to consistently knock down three-point shots and there doesn’t appear to be an immediate answer to that problem on the current roster. No matter the offensive style Howland enables, the dynamic Sword should thrive and the same goes for the big-bodied Ware. The key to it all may be rising junior point guard I.J. Ready, who has promise but has yet to show he can be a consistent playmaker.

The most interesting part of the Howland move is that Stricklin has upped the ante on the Mississippi State program. Retaining Ray would have been a perfectly reasonable move, much like it would have been understandable for Bill Battle to give Grant one more year at Alabama. Instead, both SEC athletic directors made bold statements in making changes and swinging for the fences. With the addition of Howland, the SEC adds a coach with a very strong pedigree, someone who, along with Bruce Pearl at Auburn, provides a boost to the league’s overall profile. Whether that boost turns out to have legs remains to be seen.

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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