The last time I wrote an article, I was expecting the Mississippi State Bulldogs Men’s Basketball team to make it into the Big Dance. The dogs nearly pulled it off, but after some controversial calls (Missouri, Vanderbilt) and an unforeseen injury in a tight ball game which ended in a loss (Nick’s versus Tennessee), we found ourselves in the NIT. Not only did we see the bulldogs fall to the NIT, but they were given a 4-seed in the tournament when most expected a 1-seed or 2-seed position. Every week this men’s basketball seemed to get better and better, but when I heard they fell to a 4-seed in the NIT, I had this bad feeling we would come in playing flat having missed out on the NCAA tournament. However, as many times as I have spent explaining to people they were underestimating the bulldogs all year long, here I was underestimating them myself.
As most of you know, the bulldogs are playing versus the Penn State Nittany Lions tomorrow night in the NIT semifinal after three impressive wins in NIT action. The bulldogs did not come out “playing flat” as I predicted, but they came out ANGRY and found a way to continue improving their game. Nebraska, Baylor, and Louisville were all really good teams from their conferences, who also barely missed out on the Big Dance conversation, and Mississippi State played the best ball I have seen them play all year in their wins against the three teams. What do I contribute to the great gameplay? Senior Leadership!
But wait Slimy...the bulldogs do not have any seniors who get substantial playing time? No, but the three juniors (Stapleton, Q Weatherspoon, and Aric Holman) are one loss or two wins away from being seniors. However, those three young men decided to step up here in this year’s postseason rather than wait for next year to be “their” year. Yes, the entire team is playing really impressive ball, so I am not trying to take away from guys like Peters, Nick, Tyson, Eli, or anyone else on the team. I just want to highlight how important the play of this team’s junior class has been in the NIT run and how important it is for next season, which we all expect to be very special.
So with that being said, here are the numbers
Stapleton: 4-7 FG, 2-4 3Pt, 5 Reb, 1 Stl, 1 Blck, and only 1 Foul, 12 Pts
Holman: 6-9 FG, 2-2 3Pt, 10 Reb, 4 Blocks, 2 Fouls, and 16 Points
Weatherspoon: 2-6 FG, 1-4 3pt, 3-4 FT Line, 7 rebounds, and 8 points
Stapleton: 6-8 FG, 3-4 3pt, 2 Rebounds, but 4 Fouls, 15 Points
Holman: 5-8 FG, 3-3 FT line, 8 Rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, and 13 Points
Weatherspoon: 4-9 FG, 2-4 3pt, 3-4 FT Line, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, and 13 points
Stapleton: 5-10 FG, 2-4 3pt, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 3 fouls, and 12 points
Holman: 6-10 FG, 2-4 3pt, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, and only one foul, and 16 points
Weatherspoon: 6-10 FG, 1-2 3pt, 6-6 FT Line, 14 rebounds, 2 steals, and 19 points
NIT combined stats:
Stapleton: 15-25 (60%), 7-12 3pt (58%), 12 rebounds (4/game), and 37 points (12.3 ppg)
Holman: 17-27 (63%), 4-6 3pt line (66%), 26 rebounds (8.7/game), 8 blocks (2.7 blocks/game) only 6 fouls (2 per game), and 45 points (15 ppg)
Weatherspoon: 12-25 (48%), 4-10 3pt (40%), 12-14 FT Line (86%), 24 rebounds (8/game), and 40 points (13.3 ppg)
After looking at the numbers, they pretty much do the talking for themselves. The three juniors combined for 122 of the 223 points (55%) scored in the NIT tournament games, and all three players shot a quality percentage in each of the three games with the exception being Q against Nebraska (2-6, 33%). The three juniors also combined for 62 rebounds of the 110 (56%) combined rebounds pulled down in the three tournament games played thus far.
For all three seasons he has been here, Q Weatherspoon has been the most consistent player and I would even argue he has been one of the most consistent players in Mississippi State Men’s Basketball history. Depending on the finish of this NIT run and next year’s season, he has the opportunity to solidify himself as one of the most successful bulldogs to put on a bulldog uniform.
Then there is Aric Holman, who though the addition of Abdul Ado, has finally been able to play HIS game and be the stretch forward Howland recruited him to be. Holman has been the bulldogs’ best 3-pt shooter all season (yes, to the guy who yelled at Holman to quit shooting 3’s against Nebraska as he hit both of his attempts from long range in that game). Aric Holman is a stretch forward, meaning he is a player who is designed to stretch out the floor thanks to his long distance shooting paired with his 6’10”, 225 lb frame which allows him to also make a huge difference inside the paint. The stretch forward role has become a significant one in the game of basketball, because players like Holman who can score anywhere on the floor, make it very difficult for opposing coaches to put together game plans to help defend them. To aid my argument, again just look at the whopping stats for Aric Holman, who has statistically been our best player in the NIT.
Finally, we have Mr. Xavian Stapleton, who is without a doubt playing the best ball of his career at Mississippi State here in the NIT. Stapleton’s 3-pt shooting has lived up to his nickname, “sniper ray” ,as he has hit 58% of his 3-pointers in the NIT (7-12). Stapleton, who averaged 6.6 ppg, has not been one of our leading scorers this season, but he has been one of our most accurate. The thing I love the most about Xavian Stapleton is his shot selection. Stapleton shot 40% from the field this year and 35% from 3-pt range, which is outstanding from that range. With the exception of Holman, Stapleton has been the best statistical shooter for the bulldogs in the tournament (60%) and it has been impressive to watch him grow his confidence back going into these next two games and especially next season. Stapleton’s biggest negative is he gets carried away with his passion sometimes like he did with the technical foul against Baylor. Stapleton got blown for giving constant lip to ex-bulldog Mario Kegler, who continued to egg it on from the sideline, but Mr. Kegler also got a first row seat to Q’s game winner so there’s that.
So what does this all mean? Well, it means that this team could very well win the entire NIT with the way they are playing. But who cares about the NIT? Well, they obviously do and they should. The NIT is important for this team for two reasons: A) They got to prove to the NCAA that this was a team capable of being in a tournament environment and a team which may have done exceptionally well in the Big Dance after seeing the success in the NIT and B) With a team with no seniors, this team goes into next season with momentum and realizing the potential they have to not only make the NCAA tournament next year, but to go in as a potential high seed next year with everything coming back. And why is that? Because we had these three guys among others step up and say we are not going to wait until next season to prove ourselves. Instead, they went out there now and gave the world a taste of what they missed out on in the Big Dance and let them know what to be looking for next year. Hail State!! Let’s go win the whole dang thing!