This time next week, the Mississippi State Bulldogs Men’s basketball team will be gearing up for their first game of the 2018-2019 season against Austin Peay. Ever since the Bulldog’s NIT run last year, everyone has been excited to see what Coach Ben Howland and his group of veterans and highly touted freshman can do. Ben Howland is known for his third year with a program, but I think his fourth year is even more remarkable. In his fourth year at every coaching job he’s had, Coach Howland has been the regular season champion, and had a NCAA Tournament appearance. In his first 2 jobs, Howland won the Conference Tournament with Northern Arizona and Pitt. I’m not saying we should expect to be regular season champions or SEC tournament champions, but I won’t be shocked if Howland can accomplish either of those feats with this team.
The 2017-2018 ended with a blowout in the NIT semifinal against Penn State, but that is not what I, and most fans, remember from last year’s post-season run. In Coach Howland’s third year with the program, he took big steps with the team and gave the fans a post-season run. The Bulldogs started the NIT tournament by avenging their first loss from the beginning of the season against Nebraska, had an incredible moment from Q Weatherspoon against top seeded Baylor, and handedly defeated Louisville in the KFC Yum Center. Those games brought excitement and moments that will last a lifetime. This leads us into the 2018-2019 season.
Mississippi State starts out the season ranked at 18 with expectations from all media to make it to the NCAA tournament. The starting lineup on November 9 should be Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, and Abdul Ado. But newcomers like Reggie Perry and Jethro Tshisumpa will be competing with Holman and Ado for minutes down low. DJ Stewart and Robert Woodard will provide depth at the guard positions and bring more shooters to the equation. Howland loved running a play last year where Tyson Carter or one of the Weatherspoon brothers came across the baseline and through a double screen. The ball would swing towards them, and they would catch and shoot the 3. I’d expect more of that along with a wrinkle getting the “bigs” involved.
The Bulldog’s non-conference schedule starts off with 3 games they should win and then their first Power 5 opponent is against Arizona State. Mississippi State has a good chance to go into their matchup with Top-25 ranked Clemson undefeated. Cincinnati at home immediately follows. This will be a big home matchup for the Bulldogs; don’t be surprised if this is a top-25 matchup as well. Mississippi State should go into conference play with a record of 9-3 or better.
Now conference play starts. The SEC as a whole will be arguably the best basketball conference in the nation. A .500 record will be impressive for anyone in the SEC with the depth this conference provides. Mississippi State opens with a trip to South Carolina where the Bulldogs won last year 81-76 and Q Weatherspoon led the team with 20 points and 2-4 from deep. After South Carolina and Ole Miss, Florida comes to The Hump, likely ranked. Mississippi State has 2 games with Kentucky; one on the road and one at home. Other notable road games are at Vanderbilt, Alabama, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Auburn, and Tennessee. Mississippi State hosts Kentucky, Auburn, LSU, and closes out the season with Texas A&M. Expect the Bulldogs to have around 9 conference games where the opponent is ranked.
This year, Mississippi State has the depth, experience, and coaching to contend for the regular season title. After the SEC tournament, the Bulldogs are likely to go into the NCAA tournament and try to make a run. Ben Howland went to 3 straight Final Fours with UCLA. Can he make a deep run in the tournament with this team? We will find out come November 2nd.