Mississippi State’s Future Bright Despite Early Struggles

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 14th, 2015

Off the court, Ben Howland couldn’t have gotten off to a better start since taking the reins at Mississippi State. Landing McDonald’s All-American and Jackson native Malik Newman was his first well-publicized coup, and he hasn’t stopped there. The Bulldogs’ next recruiting class is rated sixth in the nation according to 247Sports and fourth according to Rivals. Signing players like Mario Kegler, Schnider Herard and Abdul Ado required Howland to beat out Bill Self, Tom Crean, Sean Miller and several other blue-blood programs. This wasn’t just a good first few months on the job; it was a great first few months on the job.

Malik Newman and the Bulldogs are struggling, but the future is bright in Starkville (insidemsusports.com).

Malik Newman and the Bulldogs are struggling, but the future is bright in Starkville. (insidemsusports.com)

On the court, however, things are very different. The Bulldogs lost their second game of the year at home to Southern before dropping two of three in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. A three-game winning streak against an unimpressive slate of opponents led into their first true road game of the year at UMKC, a game that was set up because of former coach Rick Ray’s relationship with Kangaroos’ coach Kareem Richardson. The script for Howland’s dream start didn’t include a loss to a WAC team, but that’s what happened as Mississippi State lost by five points Saturday night in Kansas City. To be fair, this was a tricky game that KenPom had basically pegged as a toss-up, and UMKC has a guard in Martez Harrison that would start for most SEC teams. But for a Bulldogs team that was picked to finish eighth in the conference and that starts four upperclassmen and a potential lottery pick, this was yet another disappointing setback.

A number of problems surfaced in the loss. Mississippi State had shot the ball well this season, but was frustrated by the Kangaroos’ 2-3 zone. The zone limited Gavin Ware offensively — who had been putting up All-SEC numbers — and the Bulldogs weren’t able to take advantage of the resulting open looks, shooting just 24.1 percent from distance. “As a team we shot too many 3s,” Howland said after the game. “We had some open looks. If you take Malik out, we were 3-of-19 from 3-point range. That is not good.” Mississippi State was out rebounded and seemed bothered by UMKC’s size the entire night. This might seem like a surprise on paper, but the Bulldogs have struggled on the boards all season and are essentially playing just three big men in Ware, Travis Daniels and Johnny Zuppardo. It’s not all gloom and doom as Mississippi State has a chance to immediately rectify the loss by winning at Florida State on Wednesday. But this team doesn’t exactly give off the sense that’s primed to pull off something like that. That’s deflating because many people, ourselves included, pegged the combination of an experienced core and Newman to have the Bulldogs on the edges of the bubble conversation. Instead, it looks like it could be a long first season in Starkville for Howland, at least in terms of wins and losses.

Could Ben Howland duplicate his past success down in Starkville? (Russ Houston, Hail State)

It’s been an up-and-down start for Ben Howland in Starkville. (Russ Houston, Hail State)

And it might get worse before it gets better. When you factor in Ware, Zuppardo Craig Sword and Fred Thomas exhausting their eligibility and Newman presumably jumping to the next level, Howland would be left with just I.J. Ready, Daniels and Quinndary Weatherspoon as experienced returnees (this also includes Demetrius Houston’s recent transfer). Weatherspoon has plenty of potential as a scorer and had a couple of key plays as the Bulldogs ripped off an 11-0 run late against UMKC. But by necessity Howland will be relying heavily on his freshmen class in 2016-17 which could understandably lead to another frustrating year. Nonetheless, Bulldogs’ fans need to take the long term view. Signing Newman set a scary precedent for other SEC schools and Howland kept that momentum going with his first full class. This season might be littered with losses and next year might be more of the same, but the future still looks bright in Starkville.

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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