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Mississippi State is the breakout team in the SEC

Previewing the No. 4 team in the SEC, the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports
MSU Preview

#4 Mississippi State Bulldogs

Last Season: 25-12 (9-9 SEC) No. 54 KenPom

My Prediction: 23-7 (12-6, 4th in SEC)

The Masses Prediction: 11.3-6.7 (4th in SEC) No. 23 KenPom

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Tennessee vs Mississippi State Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Ben Howland | Fourth season, 55-45

When Ben Howland arrived in Starkville, he immediately started landing a higher level of recruit, compiling solid classes in a way that brought the first sustained influx of talent to program largely starved of it.

The problem, if you want to call it that, was the players in those classes needed time to develop. Today, Howland has a roster with depth and experience, but it ran counter to quick rebuilds he carried out at Northern Arizona, Pitt and UCLA. After winning just 30 games in his first two seasons, the Bulldogs just missed an NCAA tournament bid last year, but a run to the NIT semifinals hinted that a breakthrough could be just over the horizon.

There is every reason to believe Mississippi State will see its name pop up in the bracket come March. The defense has been upgraded, and the Bulldogs looked more and more consistent offensively. Those developments are enough to give Howland’s program the benefit of the doubt.

Seat Temp: COOL

sec basketball preview mississippi state 10 year look

Considering the steady rise from the abyss that was Rick Ray’s tenure, the brass in Starkville can’t be anything other than the thrilled with Howland’s handiwork. Looking at the program’s history, a decade-long absence from the NCAA tournament is a substantial drought. It’s time to dance again. Anything less, and the natives might get restless, but the momentum is there.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Xavian Stapleton transfer 32 42.28% 7.58% 4.76% 8.47%
Eli Wright transfer 34 31.48% 3.76% 4.81% 4.12%
Schnider Herard transfer 11 1.18% 0.41% 0.00% 0.71%
Nick Singleton* graduation 9 1.68% 0.81% 0.46% 0.56%
Drew Davis* graduation 17 1.14% 0.11% 0.21% 0.46%
15.55% 12.67% 10.24% 14.32%

When you’re in Mississippi State’s position, bringing back a healthy amount of production squeezes some players out. It explains why Xavian Stapleton, who was looking for a bigger state, opted for a graduate-transfer route out of Starkville. Eli Wright was fighting from behind a crowded backcourt and wasn’t able to find much breathing room. Finally, Schnider Herard left before semester despite coming in as a heralded big man, struggling to nudge his way into the mix with Abdul Ado and Aric Holman.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Quinndary Weatherspoon SR WING 37 77.99% 19.66% 67.74% 24.16%
Aric Holman SR CF 37 57.18% 14.84% 76.58% 9.59%
Nick Weatherspoon SO CG 36 68.52% 14.32% 60.99% 16.50%
Lamar Peters JR PG 34 63.22% 12.00% 49.77% 23.18%
Tyson Carter JR CG 37 56.71% 12.15% 58.69% 11.04%
Abdul Ado R-SO POST 36 63.96% 10.38% 74.24% 3.97%
E.J. Datcher JR POST 30 15.84% 2.47% 68.93% 1.24%
KeyShawn Feazell SO POST 28 11.41% 1.40% 43.03% 0.45%
T.J. Gray* JR PG 5 0.74% 0.11% 29.41% 0.00%
Mitch Storm* JR CF 8 1.34% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Tate Clayton* SO CG 4 0.60% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
83.50% 87.33% 63.11% 90.13%
NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Mississippi State Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Quinndary Weatherspoon | SENIOR | WING

The man they call ‘Q’ has a standing spot as a featured player in my previews for what feels like five or six years running now. But this is actually Weatherspoon’s senior season, and trust me, because I checked.

Kidding aside, Weatherspoon has been a stalwart for Howland and his most important recruit, one he inherited as a signee after Ray’s ouster. Since his freshman season, Weatherspoon has averaged 14.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists. While his shooting can improve, he’s offset that slight inefficiency with his knack for getting to the foul line and cashing in chances. Even a slight improvement in his shooting percentages — he shot 31.3 percent from 3-point range last season — would be a boon and leave State’s chemistry undisturbed and produce an offense that’ll be difficult to contain.

Lamar Peters is just one of those guys who is utterly unafraid of the big moment. No, analytics don’t do him any favors. An offensive rating of 94.3 and a 27.1-percent clip from long range are ugly, but Peters has a knack for burying shots in big moments. Aric Holman is another nominee for the SEC’s All-Underrated team as a stretch forward who can reliably extend and loosen up defenses with his jump-shooting. And while he’s rail thin, Holman’s timing enables him to serve as a stellar rim protector. Tyson Carter is a lightweight combo guard whose usage rate was low but produced consistently when called upon, enough so that it also offset his liability as a defender.

Down low, Abdul Ado is one of the more efficient big men in the league. He’s not flashy, but positionally does everything you want him to do and he rebounds. He is also one of the SEC’s better rebounders on the offensive glass. Meantime, E.J. Datcher and KeyShawn Feazell were solid in reserve roles but might have a little more trouble finding minutes this season with added depth in the post.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Weatherspoon | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD

Since we already previewed his brother, why not feature the little brother, Nick Weatherspoon?

Nick Weatherspoon struggled with consistency issues a season ago, but it’s easy to get excited with his ability. He posted 10.8 points per game, which on its own would be exceptionally productive for a freshman, but is more impressive when you consider he only shot 29 percent from behind the arc. Clearly, that number needs to improve, but Weatherspoon arrived with a reputation as a proven perimeter shooter, so there’s reason to think it will.

Mostly working off the ball, Weatherspoon is capable of being an elite scorer. Only this season he doesn’t have to be. The roster is solid enough the Bulldogs just need the younger Weatherspoon to be more consistent than he was a season ago. If anything, Peters can benefit from added help in his primary ball-handling duties, a role Weatherspoon played throughout his prep career.

THEN, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Reggie Perry 6'10 245 ★★★★ 31 POST
Fr Robert Woodward 6'7 230 ★★★★ 63 CF
Fr D.J. Stewart 6'6 195 ★★★★ 117 WING
Jr Jethro Tshisumpa 6'10 260 ★★★ 169 POST

It’s not like the interior is a weakness for the Bulldogs, but Howland went out and added Reggie Perry, a physical 6-foot-10 forward who is a top-40 prospect. Perry can play with his back to the rim, face-up and extend his range to the 3-point line. Robert Woodard is a big wing, who at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds is a prime candidate for a small-ball four position. Yet that’s a role that doesn’t exist within Howland’s offense, meaning Woodard might steal minutes at the wing by spelling Quinndary Weatherspoon. D.J. Stewart is a fearless wing who has a huge ceiling but might take some seasoning. And Jethro Tshisumpa, who is 6-foot-10, 260 pounds, provides another huge body on the inside. If he can remotely catch entry passes, he’ll be useful as a backup this year.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Lamar Peters Tyson Carter
(2) Combo Guard Nick Weatherspoon D.J. Stewart
(3) Wing Quinndary Weatherspoon Robert Woodward
(4) Combo Forward Aric Holman E.J. Datcher KeyShawn Feazell
(5) Post Reggie Perry Abdul Ado Jethro Tshisumpa

Why mess with a good thing if you’re Howland? There’s a natural starting five: Peters, the Weatherspoons, Holman, and Ado. But I decided to bump Ado to a reserve role, swapping in Perry to give the Bulldogs some more juice offensively. Howland boasts impressive depth along his front line, but will he be able to keep those big men happy and allot minutes in a way to keep all of them around for next season? The perimeter seems a little more set with the same top four and filtering in your newer guys.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 23-7 | KenPom Projected Record: 21-9

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Clemson vs Kansas Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 9 Home Austin Peay 191 W
Nov 11 Home Hartford 197 W
Nov 16 Home Long Beach State 201 W
Nov 19 Neutral Arizona State 53 W
Nov 21 Neutral St. Mary's/Utah State 74 / 170 -
Nov 26 Home Alcorn State 341 W
Nov 30 Home Dayton 100 W
Dec 4 Away McNeese State 330 W
Dec 8 Neutral Clemson 14 L
Dec 15 Home Cincinnati 44 W
Dec 19 Home Wofford 121 W
Dec 22 Home* Wright State 125 W
Dec 29 Home BYU 56 W
avg 147.75

If Howland had scheduled moderately better last season, the Bulldogs’ case for an at-large bid might have been more compelling. Fairly soft non-conference schedules have been his preference in Starkville, with Howland hoping his teaching and development and practice builds confidence. Aside from sapping State’s strength of schedule, not testing the Bulldogs mettle may have made the start of SEC play jarring, resulting in a 2-5 start.

This year, the schedule picks up a little more with tilts against Dayton, Clemson, BYU and visit from Cincinnati — all opponents who sit in the top 100 of KenPom. It’s a tougher schedule than they’ve endured, so there’s an opportunity for being tripped up. But the only real road trip is to Dayton, meaning State should have a painless path to 10 wins.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 8 Away South Carolina 42 W
Jan 12 Home Ole Miss 94 W
Jan 15 Home Florida 19 W
Jan 19 Away Vanderbilt 69 L
Jan 22 Away Kentucky 7 L
Jan 26 Home Auburn 17 W
Jan 29 Away Alabama 51 L
Feb 2 Away Ole Miss 94 L
Feb 6 Home LSU 50 W
Feb 9 Home Kentucky 7 W
Feb 12 Home Alabama 51 W
Feb 16 Away Arkansas 64 W
Feb 20 Away Georgia 101 W
Feb 23 Home South Carolina 42 W
Feb 26 Home Missouri 43 W
Mar 2 Away Auburn 17 L
Mar 5 Away Tennessee 11 L
Mar 9 Home Texas A&M 48 W
avg 45.94

Home-and-homes with Kentucky and Auburn make for a tough draw, and that’s before you consider the road trip to Tennessee. If State is going to justify preseason predictions as a top-20 squad, finding a way to win two of those five games is a reasonable expectation. (Beating UK or Auburn in Starkville at The Hump would help their case for a protected seed.) The schedule is also balanced with home-and-homes versus South Carolina and Ole Miss. Right now, I’ve got all their losses coming on the road, which has been a consistent struggle during Howland’s time on the job. Staying perfect at home, though, figures to be a big ask with games against Kentucky, Auburn, Florida and LSU all on the docket. So it might behoove Howland and company to pick up an unexpected win on the road, or maybe two if they want a chance for a double-bye in the SEC tournament.

OVERVIEW

For those State fans waiting on the inevitable breakout season, last season was pretty close. At Auburn, Bruce Pearl and the Tigers overcame off-the-court drama to split an SEC crown in his fourth season — and all signs point to Howland and the Bulldogs making a similar push.

It seems every year there’s a team who uses a trip to the NIT to burst onto the scene the following year and be a top-25 team. Mississippi State returns all the usual suspects from that team, adds in a top-20 recruiting class and has had continuity with Howland and his staff.

What stands in the Bulldogs’ way? Offensive consistency. Howland’s teams have never finished in top 75 of KenPom’s ratings for adjusted efficiency. (They just missed at 76th last season.) Poor perimeter shooting has hobbled those efforts, including a 31.5-percent clip, which ranked among the worst in the country.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Holman was the only Bulldog to eclipse the 35-percent mark last year, and this roster is going to do better than that it wants to take the next step. Clearing that bar elevates the Bulldogs ceiling from a likely NCAA tournament team to one that could contend for an SEC title. Hovering around 30 percent from 3-point range, however, makes it hard to envision MSU reaching 11 wins in league play. Poor shooting on the road makes it hard to notch quality wins that put you in contention.

With their size on the inside and athleticism on the wing, MSU should be able to bang and defend and rebound with just about anyone. Their 2-point efficiency was off the charts, ranking 23rd nationally, per KenPom. The Weatherspoons will attack the rim and earn trips to the line, while Ado and Perry offer Howland physical bodies to pose a challenge to post defenders. It’s also a given that Howland’s team is going to be salty defensively.

Shoot better, and the sky is the limit for this team.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.