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What Does Mississippi State Need to Accomplish in Puerto Rico?

What to watch for as MSU takes on tough competition in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State will try to bounce back from an unexpected loss to Southern University as Ben Howland's team travels oversees to compete in the the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

That competition will be among the toughest the Bulldogs will face in the non-conference schedule. Miami, Utah and Texas Tech are the other teams in their side of the bracket.

MSU opens up with Miami, who is 2-0 and received votes in the first top 25 poll of the season. Utah is 2-0 and ranked No. 16 in the country.

While the team's goal will obviously be to run the table or go 2-1 over that stretch of games, there are several things they need to accomplish that are more important than wins at this early stage of the season.

Improve the defense

While Howland already his team shooting the ball better than his predecessor, he also has them playing much worse on the other end of the floor. Eastern Washinghton and Southern both gave MSU fits on defense, especially in the paint. Not only has MSU allowed an average of 82 points through two games, but opponents have shot lights out in the first half.

Eastern Washington shot 59 percent in the first half and Southern shot around 57 percent. While State's defense improved each time in the second half, they have to start playing with that same energy from the start of games. Howland isn't a fan of playing zone defense, but he may be forced to do so until his team improves defending the post and driving lanes to the basket. He'll have his work cut out for him this weekend.

Limit the mental mistakes

Nineteen turnovers plagued MSU against Southern in game two. That was always an area of concern when Rick Ray was the coach and it didn't take long to rear its ugly head again. You can't chalk it up as young players making rookie mistakes, as the seniors were responsible for committing 13 of those 19 turnovers.

This one is on the players. They have to play smarter and not force the issue when there isn't enough space to drive inside. Less selfish play from the guards and more attempts to feed Gavin Ware inside would go a long way. They did that in the opener but got away from it against Southern, and it cost them. Ware needs touches and plenty of them to give them a chance against Miami and Utah.

Get Malik Newman up to game speed

The freshman point guard struggled in more ways than one in his debut after being sidelined for a couple of weeks with a turf toe injury. He shot 2-of-8 from the field and 1-of-6 on the foul line. He was too anxious to wait for quality shots, and quite frankly, looked like a true freshman.

Newman will play more and more minutes as he gets back to full strength. He needs to use this trip to get his mind right again and get back in the groove of playing basketball. It's no secret that he's the key to the engine for MSU basketball. If they have a special season, it will be because he lived up to the hype of his five-star status. Win or lose in Puerto Rico, if Newman shows out that's a positive sign for the remainder of the season.