After a 90-66 road loss to Florida State on Wednesday, things are looking grim for the 2015-16 Mississippi State basketball team. The Bulldogs are now 4-5 midway through the non-conference slate, and the schedule isn't going to get any easier. I've seen some fans start to question the hire of Ben Howland since there is no immediate success with this basketball team. I have one message for those fans.
Success doesn't happen overnight. A basketball program that went 37-60 and never finished higher than 11th in the SEC over the last three years doesn't become an NCAA Tournament team in one year. It just doesn't.
If you're expecting Ben Howland to change this program and make it contend for the SEC title this year, it's a good time to stop. But anyway, this isn't the first time Ben Howland has faced the challenge of turning a program around. He's done it three times. If you look back at his rebuilds in the past, they didn't change overnight. But, consistently under Ben Howland, there is one year in which dramatic change is evident.
Year three is where success is obvious. Three different programs under Ben Howland's true success started in year three. This graphic, which was shown during the Texas Southern game two weeks ago, makes that clear.
When I first saw this graphic, I was pretty amazed. Going from abysmal to at least 21 wins in just three years is incredible. Three years may seem like a long time, but when you really dive into things, three years is a pretty small window to build a program, especially to the extent Howland has built his. But, in addition to being awestruck at the success of this man, I was fascinated. I was fascinated with how he did this. How can a man turn programs around from rock bottom to an NCAA Tournament team three times?
With that in mind, I decided to look into it, and what I'm writing in this piece are the results. I dove into his rebuilds. I saw what the programs were like when he took over, what pieces he had, what pieces he brought in. I wanted to see if there were any consistencies in these turnarounds and compare them to what he is inheriting at Mississippi State. So, that's what I did.
Before Howland arrived in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona made it to the postseason only once, an NIT appearance in 1986. Also in that 1985-86 season, the Lumberjacks achieved their only conference championship. That was the only true taste of success Northern Arizona got to experience before Ben Howland's arrival.
Howland was succeeding Harold Merritt as head coach. Merritt complied an abysmal record of 34-72 in his four seasons at Northern Arizona. This was a major rebuild. It was a huge challenge for Ben Howland.
Going into the 1994-95 season, Ben Howland lost three starters from last year's team, including leading scorer Jason Word. This lack of experience proved costly, as Howland's Lumberjacks staggered to a 9-17 record, 4-10 in the Big Sky.
Going into the next season, things were looking up for NAU. They were losing two starters, both of whom were in the top three on the team in scoring, but they were going to bring back their leading scorer, Brad Snyder, who averaged 14.5 points per game. But, tragedy struck. Shortly after their season ended, Snyder was killed in a car accident. This resulted in the Lumberjacks losing their three leading scorers and bringing back only two starters. That led to an even worse 1995-96 campaign, as Howland's team went 7-19, 3-11 in the Big Sky.
Although the Lumberjacks struggled mightily in the first two years of the Ben Howland era, there was excitement in the program going into the 1996-97 season. They were bringing back two of their three leading scorers from the previous year's team, and in addition, they entered two new players - a 7'0 freshman center named Dan McClintock and a junior guard out of Canada, Andrew Mavis. Bringing in these talents, plus the experience of the team already, made the season a huge success. Northern Arizona strung together a 21-7 season that included a Big Sky Championship, their first conference championship since 1986, and a berth in the NIT, their first postseason appearance since 1986.
There is the first example of Ben Howland in year three. 9-17, 7-19, 21-7. Howland was able to take advantage of the young talent he had coming in and added new pieces that led Northern Arizona to their success. Also, if Brad Snyder had not been killed in that car wreck, the '95-'96 team could have been much better.
The one thing that mattered most after year three was that Howland was able to sustain the success. Howland spent two more years in Flagstaff, posting a 21-8 season in 1997-98 that included another Big Sky Championship and the program's first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and another 21-8 year in his last season.
After leading Northern Arizona to new heights, Howland brought his talents to Pittsburgh.
At the time of Howland's arrival in 1999, the Panthers hadn't been to an NCAA Tournament since 1993 or won a conference title since 1988. He replaced Ralph Willard as head coach, who had complied a record 63-82 over the course of five years in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh program was already rich in tradition, but they had fallen under some hard times. Once again, this was a major challenge for Ben Howland.
Going into Howland's first year, 1999-00, Pittsburgh was returning three of their top six scorers from the previous year, all three of whom played in at least 24 games, and was also bringing in a highly touted recruit, freshman guard Brandin Knight.
The problem was that the Panthers were losing their two top scorers, Vonteego Cummings and Isaac Hawkins. Although having the experience of the players returning and an insanely talented player in Brandin Knight, their losing Cummings and Hawkins, and also that these players never played on a truly successful team, hurt Howland, as Pittsburgh went 13-15, 5-11 in the Big East.
Things looked better for Pitt going into 2000-01, though. Much better. The Panthers were returning four of their top five scorers, and they had tons of young talent. They brought back three sophomores who played in at least 30 games as freshmen and welcomed another highly touted recruit, Julius Page. The Panthers reeled off a 19-14 season, going 7-9 in the Big East, and made it to the 2nd round of the NIT. Pitt fed off of that young talent, as three of their five leading scorers were either freshmen or sophomores.
And then, year three. Everything was set up perfectly. Going into the 2001-02 season, Howland was bringing back three of the previous year's top five scorers, all of which were entering their sophomore or junior year. Ben Howland was able to take advantage of the opportunity given by this team. He had the most successful year of his time as a head coach, leading the Panthers to a 29-6 year, including a Big East Championship from a 13-3 conference record, and an appearance in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. There were three freshmen or sophomores that played in at least 32 games, two of which were in the team's top four leading scorers.
There he goes again. Year three. 13-15, 19-14, 29-6. Are you starting to catch a trend? One difference, and a positive difference at that, between his time at Northern Arizona and Pitt was that he found success in year two at Pitt. They went to the NIT, which was a drastic improvement from past years. But, goodness, year three. A Big East title and a Sweet Sixteen appearance. It's pretty hard to beat that in year three of a complete rebuild.
And, again, Howland continued his success. He spent one more year in Pittsburgh, going 28-5 (13-3 in conference) with another Big East title, a Big East Tournament Championship, and another Sweet Sixteen appearance.
After pulling off an incredibly successful four years at Pitt, Ben Howland took his dream job, UCLA.
When Howland arrived in Westwood before the 2003-04 season, UCLA was coming off of a 10-19 season under Steve Lavin. That 2002-03 season was UCLA's first losing season since the 1947-48 campaign, when Wilbur Johns' Bruins went 12-13. Although he was becoming the head coach at arguably the biggest and best program in college basketball, it was a very difficult situation for Howland.
Going into his first year, UCLA was losing three of their top five scorers from the previous year, the two starters being a junior and a senior. In addition, Howland signed five star forward Trevor Ariza for the season. Although having some experience and the talent of Ariza, the Bruins limped to an 11-17, 7-11 season.
The one thing Ben Howland made sure UCLA did well when he went there was recruiting. In his first class, 2004, Howland signed two 5 stars, guards Arron Affalo and Jordan Farmer, and two 4 stars, Lorenzo Mata and Josh Shipp. UCLA was losing a lot entering the 2004-05 season. They lost three of their top five scorers, including Trevor Ariza, but brought back a senior and brought in that absolutely loaded recruiting class, which was ranked 5th according to Rivals.com. What followed was an 18-11, 11-7 season that resulted in an NCAA Tournament appearance.
The one key to that team was that Howland was able to take advantage of his young talent. Three freshmen played in all 29 games, all three of which were in the team's top four in scoring.
And then, the culmination of it all, year three. UCLA was bringing back four of their top five scorers from the previous year, three of them were entering their sophomore year. In addition, Howland brought in another solid recruiting class, led by three 4 stars, Alfred Aboya, Ryan Wright, and Darren Collison. This class was ranked 18th by Rivals. The talent from the last two recruiting classes came together to produce a 32-7, 14-4 team that won the Pac 10 regular season and tournament championships, and also made it to the NCAA Championship Game against Florida.
There it is again. Year three. 11-17, 18-11, 32-7. Ben Howland made sure he built this up with talent, and that's exactly what he did, with two consecutive top 20 classes. But, most importantly, he made use of that talent, ultimately leading them to seven NCAA Tournament appearances, including three straight Final Fours.
And now, Ben Howland has arrived in Starkville, ready to build another program to national prominence.
What has Howland inherited here so far? In his first season, four of the team's five starters returned, and he also signed 5 star guard Malik Newman. He has the experience and the insanely talented recruit. How is that team doing? Currently, they're 4-5 with losses to Southern University and Missouri Kansas City.
But, look back at his previous rebuilds, Pittsburgh and UCLA especially. At Pitt and UCLA, he had exactly what he is inheriting here. At Pitt, they brought back three of their top six scorers and brought in a highly touted recruit, Brandin Knight. They went 13-15. At UCLA, they were bringing back a junior and senior, both of whom started, and brought in a 5 star recruit, Trevor Ariza. They went 11-17.
Mississippi State is in the exact same situation that UCLA and Pitt were in, and Howland is solving the problem the same way at Mississippi State as he did at those two schools, with recruiting. His first recruiting class at Pitt featured the likes of Julius Page and Jaron Brown. Both of them started in all 33 games in their freshman seasons and went to the NIT. Howland's first recruiting class at UCLA was the 5th best in the country, with two 5 stars and two 4 stars. Those freshmen carried the team in their first year, going to the NCAA Tournament.
So far in his first recruiting class at Mississippi State, Ben Howland has signed six 4 stars, making it the 4th best class in the country. Similar to what Howland faced at UCLA, Mississippi State will be losing a majority of their experience going into his 2nd year, so the incoming freshmen will have to carry the load for the team. It worked at UCLA with the 5th best class in the country, and with Howland's track record of developing players, Mississippi State should be having similar success.
If you're frustrated with this year's team, I don't blame you if you are. But take a step back and look at what the Bulldogs have coming in. Look at that and compare it to Howland's work at the other three schools he's coached. The cases are all very similar.
The future is as bright as it's ever been for Mississippi State basketball, and it's all because of Ben Howland. The excitement is back around the program. By year three, as has been demonstrated in Ben Howland's past, Mississippi State will be a legitimate contender. I guarantee it.