A year away. We all want the Mississippi St. Bulldogs back to the point where the team is making annual trips to the NCAA Tournament. And while there is some hope and optimism around this year’s team, we still probably have one more year before that can start to become the norm.
That doesn’t mean this team can’t make the NCAA Tournament or be really good, but there are so many new and young pieces on this team, it is hard to determine exactly where this team will finish. But there is plenty of reason to be excited. And it all starts with the man hired to get the Bulldogs back to relevancy, Ben Howland.
Year One, he rebuilds. Year Two, he fine tunes. Year Three, he unleashes the hounds.
Ben Howland is one of the best basketball coaches in the country. I’m still shocked to see him walking the sidelines of The Hump on game days. How the Mississippi St. Bulldogs went from Rick Ray to Ben Howland is one of the greatest coaching coups you’ll ever find in the country. He has an overall record of 413-225. Teams he has coached have won 8 Regular Season Conference Championships, appeared in 10 NCAA Tournaments, and 3 Final Fours.
Howland has a very distinct track record in his career in turning programs around. Year One is always a difficult one as the teams try to learn his system and adapt to what Howland wants them to do. Here is what Howland’s teams have done in their first year under the accomplished head coach.
- Northern Arizona: 8-18
- Pittsburgh: 13-15
- UCLA: 11-17
- Mississippi State: 14-17
There was a lot of hope the Bulldogs could be better in 2016 with a new coach being introduced to a veteran lineup. Unfortunately, those hopes were ill-conceived. The team had to learn how to win in 2016, which is something they never really figured out until late in the season. But it shouldn’t cause concern. This is the standard way things go under Howland. Year Two gets a little better with Howland at the helm. Here is how the second year has fared at every program Ben Howland has coached at.
- Northern Arizona: 6-20
- Pittsburgh: 19-14
- UCLA: 18-11 (team also appeared in the NCAA Tournament)
With the exception of Northern Arizona, the team improved in the second year. He even took the Bruins to the NCAA Tournament. Can he repeat that feat at Mississippi State? It’s way too early to tell, but it shouldn’t be taken completely off the table.
The third year is the take-off year. Howland had amazing success in each of his first three stops, and with the talent on the roster, there is a really good chance the Bulldogs start making their way toward the top of the SEC standings next season. Here’s the results from Year Three under Howland.
- Northern Arizona : 21-7, Regular Season Conference Championship
- Pittsburgh: 29-6, Regular Season Championship and NCAA Tournament Berth
- UCLA: 32-7, Regular Season Championship and Final Four Appearance
Who knows if the Bulldogs will be able to match those results in Year Three? We still have to get through Year Two, but with the strides Howland has made in the recruiting trail, I wouldn’t rule anything out.
The schedule alone will make getting anything besides an NIT appearance difficult.
Ben Howland has set up the schedule to instill confidence in his young but talented team. It’s very possible the Bulldogs could enter SEC play with only 1 to 3 losses, but we might not know just how good this team is even if they do.
The only thing not showing on the schedule is the Charleston Classic. It’s a three day tournament that starts November 17th against Central Florida. The Bulldogs will play either Boise St. or Charleston in the second game of the tournament and the final day could see the Bulldogs play Western Michigan, UTEP, Wake Forest, or possibly even Defending National Champion Villanova.
But those are the only times the Bulldogs will really get an opportunity to challenge themselves in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Oregon State out of the Pac-12 might be decent, but much isn’t expected of them. This team could lose a game in there we don’t expect just because of their lack of experience, but outside the Charleston Tournament, Mississippi State will likely be favored in every single non-conference game they play in this season.
Once SEC play starts on January 3rd, things won’t really be much easier to predict. Howland’s squad is very young and will have lots of growing pains, but there is so much mediocrity in the league, anywhere from a 2nd to 12th place finish in the Conference standings is not out of the question.
Combine the weakness of the non-conference schedule with the weakness of the SEC, and it is very possible the Bulldogs are going to have to put up 23 or 24 wins this season if they want to make a trip to the NCAA Tournament in March. Even with the talent on the team, expecting something along those lines is probably asking a bit much of a team that has so much inexperience.
The Fresh Faces
Mississippi State will be introduced to a brand new crop of players who will be called upon to contribute early.
This is an exciting season for fans of the Men’s Basketball team because of all the new players the team is getting after Howland’s first full year recruiting. Howland signed seven players for the 2016 class, plus he’ll add a transfer, and a freshman who redshirted during the 2015-16 season. Here’s the new additions to the team.
- Xavian Stapleton - Sophomore (Guard, 6’6” - 195 lbs. Transfer from Louisiana Tech)
- Joe Strugg - Freshman (Forward, 6’9” - 196 lbs. Redshirted 2015-16 season mostly due to injury)
- Abdul Ado - Freshman (Forward, 6’11” - 246 lbs. Not yet cleared academically)
- Tyson Carter - Freshman (Guard, 6’4” - 167 lbs.)
- E.J. Datcher - Freshman (Forward/Center, 6’9” - 240 lbs.)
- Schnider Herard - Freshman (Forward/Center, 6’10” - 250 lbs.)
- Mario Kegler - Freshman (Guard/Forward, 6’7” - 220 lbs.)
- Lamar Peters - Freshman (Guard, 5’11” - 166 lbs.)
- Eli Wright - Freshman (Guard, 6’4” - 204 lbs.)
The biggest challenge Ben Howland will have this season is figuring out how to make all these new parts work together. It’s like someone bought Howland a brand new Mercedes, but they sent it to him completely disassembled with all the parts in a ton of boxes. It’s going to be a great car if he can figure out how to put them all together and make them work right.
The seven true freshmen make up the highest rated recruiting class the basketball team has ever had. Six of the seven should play this season, and we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with Abdul Ado. These guys are talented, but they’ll have to learn a lot and learn it in a hurry.
I’m not going to sit here and try to make projections about which player is the best of the freshmen because there is no way to tell which ones will have the best careers. But I will tell you which one this team needs to pan out the quickest. And that’s the big man Schnider Herard.
According to 247 Sports, Herard was the highest rated player in the class. He’s also one of the very few low post players on the team that should be able to go down low and bang with some of the best big men in the country. If he doesn’t live up to expectations and live up to them from the start, the Bulldogs are going to have very little presence inside and get hammered on the boards. This team needs Herard to be good more than they need any other of the new players to be good.
The Familiar Faces
There aren’t many holdovers from the 2015-16 season, but the ones that are should provide steady leadership to all the new faces.
There are only three players from last season’s team that we are familiar with. But those three are pretty good.
- Aric Holman - Sophomore Forward (1.9 PPG, 40.9 FG%, 15.9 3PT%, 1.9 RPG)
- I.J. Ready - Senior Guard (9.2 PPG, 41.7 FG%, 28.6 3PT%, 4.5 APG, 1.6 TO)
- Quinndary Weatherspoon - Sophomore Guard/Forward (12.0 PPG, 44.8 FG%, 39.4 3PT%, 4.7 RPG)
Aric Holman showed flashes of being a highly skilled player in 2016. The problem was we didn’t see him until close to the start of the SEC season, and it took him a while to get comfortable after suffering an injury before the start of the season. But once he got going, you got the sense he was going to be an excellent player for the Bulldogs. We should see more what had him rated as a four star prospect coming out of high school in 2016-17.
I.J. Ready might have made the most improvement during his junior season under Ben Howland. Early on in the year, he played way too much hero ball and made mistakes that hurt the team’s progress. Toward the end of the year, he began to accept a role closer to that of a facilitator and tried to get others in a position to score. If he can realize the number of weapons he has around him and defer to those weapons, he could have great year simply by being the on-court general the coaching staff will need him to be.
Quinndary Weatherspoon is the best player on the team. He flourished in his freshman season under Ben Howland, and now that there is more talent around him, he could make ever bigger steps forward in his sophomore season. Weatherspoon obviously has his sights on the NBA, and he’ll need to establish himself as a true two guard if he wants to make those dreams come true. If Weatherspoon can get more consistent with his jump shot and show he can create scoring opportunities on his own with the ball in his hand, he will certainly have a shot.
Word for the Season is Versatility
The Mississippi St. Bulldogs will be able to play in a variety of methods which is good since it will take them some time to figure out what lineups work best.
If the players play like they are capable of, there will be a lot of different line-up combinations Ben Howland can use. He can go small, big, or anywhere in-between.
If Howland plans to use the standard two guards, two forwards, and one center approach, Howland will likely pick from the following players.
- Point Guard - (I.J. Ready, Lamar Peters)
- Shooting Guard - (Quinndary Weatherspoon, Tyson Carter, Eli Wright)
- Small Forward - (Mario Kegler)
- Power Forward - (Aric Holman, E.J. Datcher)
- Center - (Schnider Herard)
The first player listed in parentheses was the starter for the exhibition. My guess is this is how Howland will start each game, at least for the first few games. It’s for the most part a standard lineup with everyone at the position they are most naturally accustomed to.
I don’t think we’ll see this happen too often, but the Bulldogs could go big if they want to. This would be the hardest way for them to win, and this is where the lineup gets less flexible.
- Point Guard - (Tyson Carter, Eli Wright, Quinndary Weatherspoon)
- Shooting Guard - (Mario Kegler)
- Small Forward - (Aric Holman)
- Power Forward - (E.J. Datcher)
- Center - (Schnider Herard)
If the Bulldogs go untraditional, this is likely how they will do it. With the renewed emphasis on 3 point shooting and spacing, teams have to be able to play small.
- Point Guard - (I.J. Ready, Lamar Peters)
- Shooting Guard - (Tyson Carter, Eli Wright)
- Small Forward - (Quinndary Weatherspoon)
- Power Forward - (Mario Kegler)
- Center - (Aric Holman)
On a related note, be prepared for this team to take a lot of threes. Howland has recruited a team of shooters, and he is going to expect them to take shots on the perimeter. This will take some getting used to, but the players on this team are supposed to be able to hit threes.
With all of the inexperience on the team, anything is possible.
There’s a lot of variables as we enter the 2016-17 Mississippi State Men’s Basketball season. There’s a lot of talent, but there isn’t a lot of experience. And those two can lead to a lot of volatility in a season.
If you’re looking for a win total, let me give you a range. Anything less than 16 wins in the regular season would be surprising and concerning to me. Anything more than 22 wins in the regular season would also be surprising, but also very encouraging. a 6 win gap may not seem like much, but if the Bulldogs win 16 regular season games, they finish the season with a 16-15 record. If they win 22, it’s a 22-9 record. The best guess is somewhere in-between.
If you’re looking for a more general prediction, here is what I will give you. I expect this team to play basketball in the post season. Will it be the NIT or NCAA Tournament? Probably the NIT, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on the bubble for a lot of the season and to be just on the outside looking in after it is all said and done.
It’s an exciting time to be a Bulldogs’ basketball fan. And the best times are likely still a season away.