When Ben Howland came to Mississippi State University there was a relief of sorts. Mississippi State finally had their man. Howland was a proven winner. At every stop in his career came NCAA appearances. He is responsible for one appearance for the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks. He guided Pittsburgh to the Sweet 16 in his final two years with the program. Finally at UCLA, he continued his winning ways by leading the Bruins to 7 NCAA Appearances including 3 straight Final Fours. There was a pattern to Howland’s winning ways. In his 3rd year at every program came a substantial bump in wins and postseason success. Mississippi State is currently in its 3rd year under Coach Howland. Although the team has a strong overall record of 14-4 (2-3 Conference), their RPI is in the 70s. Wins over Alabama State and Arkansas-Little Rock do not exactly tip the scales toward a better RPI. If the season plays out like it is scripted, the great people of Starkville and beyond will have to wait at least another year for postseason play.
State fans have been waiting for “Howland’s Year 3.” However, Year 4 is where Coach Howland and his young men will prevail. By looking at two of Mississippi State’s previous coaches we see a trend. With the exception of Rick Ray and his disaster tenure, Year 4 has been program changing. Let’s look back.
Coach Richard Williams
Richard Williams’ first 3 seasons in Starkville were fairly uneventful. His teams middled around .500 and had losing records in conference play. However, in Williams’ 4th season in 1989-1990, the Bulldogs snuck into the NIT for the first time in 10 years. The next season resulted in an NCAA tournament berth for the first time in nearly 30 years. State fans know that 5 years later the Bulldogs joined Kentucky, UMass, and Syracuse in the 1996 Final Four. Although at first glance an NIT appearance does not seem monumental. However, one could argue that it set the wheels in motion for sustained success in Starkville for the preceding 6 years.
Coach Rick Stansbury
Rick Stansbury differed from Richard Williams in that he found immediate success on the hardwood. The Bulldogs picked up an invitation for the 1999 NIT in Stansbury’s first season. After a quick exit in the NIT and no postseason play in Stansbury’s second season, Coach Rick pushed his young men into the NIT Quarterfinals in his 3rd season at the helm. Once again the trend continues, Year 4 under Coach Stansbury changed momentum for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs would go on to make 4 straight NCAA appearances including making the dance 6 out of 8 seasons. It’s hard to imagine that Mississippi State had that type of sustained success in the not too distant past.
This season is far from over. From a fan’s perspective, this season has been difficult to watch. It sounds absurd to be upset about a 14-4 squad. But that is life in college athletics. Getting to the NIT would be a challenge for the current squad but not impossible. Mississippi State has a key stretch of conference games that will decide whether this team is headed for postseason play. Ben Howland can win ball games. Quinndary Weatherspoon can hit the big shots. The Hump can be a hard place to play. Can Year 4 change Mississippi State basketball? We’ll have to wait until next year.