Expectations were high for Mississippi State last season, and for a good reason. The Bulldogs were fresh off a successful run in the NIT run the year before, stocked with a returning core, and led by a veteran coach with a defined style. After a 12-1 start to the season, everything looked like it was falling into place for where preseason expectations had them.
Then SEC play began.
The Bulldogs stumbled to a 4-6 start, one that exposed the roster’s flaws. If not for a 5-0 stretch during the soft middle of their conference schedule, Ben Howland’s squad might have missed the NCAA tournament. Ultimately, State salvaged their season, earning a No. 5 seed in March — only to be picked off in a first-round upset by Liberty.
Falling short of expectations might also be the emerging theme of Howland’s tenure in Starkville.
Previous SEC Previews
- No. 14 Vanderbilt Commodores: Jerry Stackhouse takes over at Vanderbilt with a big rebuild ahead of him
- No. 13 Texas A&M Aggies: Buzz Williams takes over a rebuild at Texas A&M, but he’s certainly the long term answer
- No. 12 South Carolina Gamecocks: This feels like a pivotal year for a Frank Martin team looking to break through
- No. 11 Georgia Bulldogs: Anthony Edwards is going to be the star of the show in Athens
- No. 10 Ole Miss Rebels: With Breein Tyree the Rebels have a shot each and every game
#9 Mississippi State Bulldogs
Last Season: 23-11 (10 - 8 in conference) No. 21 in KenPom
My Prediction: 18-13 (8-10, 9th in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 9.0-9.0 (8th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 4th in conference
KenPom Projection: 17 - 12 (9-9 in conference) no. 53
HEAD COACH: Ben Howland Fifth Season, 78-56
When Mississippi State hired Howland, the move was mostly lauded. The rocky end to Rick Stansbury’s time in Starkville and Rick Ray’s mediocrity had left the program rudderless. While Howland’s grip slipped at UCLA, he had a proven track record retooling the likes of Northern Arizona and Pitt. Since returning to the sidelines, his performance has been, well, fine. Recruiting stabilized, the record incrementally improved and expectations steadily evolved. Early exits in the SEC tournament and big dance might not qualify as a breakthrough, but overall, MSU is in better shape than Howland found it.
Seat Temp: COOL
However, long-term satisfaction with Howland likely hinges on fans’ expectations moving forward — and those might collide with reality. Under Stansbury, the Bulldogs went to the NCAA tournament six times in eight seasons. Yet his roster construction wasn’t durable, and when it collapsed, Rick Ray was left to sweep up the mess. Now that Howland’s made a tournament appearance, how regularly do fans expect to see the Bulldogs pop up in the bracket? And can he get there with this group of players?
SO, WHO’S GONE?
Talking about Mississippi State over the past four years often began with the impact of Quinndary Weatherspoon. From the moment he set foot on campus, he made a steady impact over four seasons. As a freshman, he played second fiddle to Malik Newman, a five-star prospect Howland managed to keep home. Once Newman opted to transfer to Kansas, Weatherspoon quickly filled the void and went on to become the third-leading scorer in school history. I’m not sure you can understate the impact of his departure.
Depending on who you talk to, the loss of Lamar Peters is either a blessing or a curse. Peters never shied away from taking a big shot, a penchant that delivered mixed results. Oddly enough, Peters’ strengths were mostly off the ball. However, the structure of Howland’s offense required him to be a primary creator. While that wasn’t always optimal, his playmaking ability will be hard to replace.
Few players in the SEC were as underrated as combo forward Aric Holman. At 6-foot-10, he was not only a capable rebounder and rim protector, but shot 42.3 percent from the 3-point line. That ability to play inside and out helped him make an impact all over the floor.
Meanwhile, Jethro Tshisumpa transferred after struggling to carve out a role.
AND, WHO’S BACK?
|Robert Woodard II||SO||CF||34||43.07%||7.12%||52.50%||8.15%|
Reggie Perry | SOPHOMORE | POST
The 6-foot-10, 245-pound sophomore has a physique that looks like it was created in NBA2K, and he’s slowly figured out how to use it to his advantage. Entering the season, Perry is projected to go off the board early in the second round of the NBA draft, and he looks like an elite player. The former five-star recruit is a force around the rim and a rebounding menace. When you’re built like he is, you’d better be good at those tasks.
As a freshman, Perry was able to serve as a third option behind Weatherspoon and Peters. Now, he’ll likely see an uptick in usage and expectations to shoulder more of the offensive burden. Yet he struggled at times to create his own offense, relying mostly on putbacks and getting passes in the short corner. His growth will come in the form of consistently utilizing post touches that come his way. If he does that, it will propel him into the first round next June.
While MSU lost a lot a fair share of its production, they also have a solid contingent of returners. It’s also the source of your optimism surrounding Howland’s team. Tyson Carter was invaluable, offering steady shooting and an off-ball threat. With Peters gone, he might see the ball in his hands more, and it will be crucial for Carter to keep up his efficiency.
Abdul Ado is one of the tougher and more physical defenders on the low block. But he’s never developed much of an offensive game. He’s not great as a roll man, and with only 19 post-up possessions, it’s hard to gauge whether he’s a genuine threat to score with his back to the basket. More often than not, Ado will defer those touches to Perry. Meanwhile, Robert Woodard looks like the perfect candidate to generate offense outside of a called set. He’s athletic and aggressive enough to break down the defense solo.
Nick Weatherspoon | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD
Of all the ways you can describe Nick Weatherspoon, boring isn’t one of them. While he arrived as the sixth highest-rated recruit in program history, it’s safe to say he’s underwhelmed. And that’s before you consider he was suspended for the final 10 games of last season and will have miss the first 10 games of this season due to an academic scandal.
When he’s on the floor, Weatherspoon can act as a lead guard or play off the ball. He has great size for a point guard and decent athleticism, but he’s more undersized for a wing. Over his first two seasons, he was a secondary option behind his older brother and Peters, but necessity might dictate that he takes the reins as a junior. He’s likely the most important player for this team when he returns to the roster.
THEN, WHO’S NEW?
For a team in need of ball-handlers, the Bulldogs went out and recruited two wings, a post, and a combo guard.
I do like the long term potential of Elias King, a physical wing who is rough around the edges offensively but fits Howland’s preferences. Iverson Molinar is a crafty scorer on the wing and could be a factor off the bench as well. Devin Butts fits the physical dimensions of a combo guard and, given the lack of sure-handed guards on the roster, could be in line for early minutes. Quinten Post is big and from the Netherlands. Other than those two facts, we don’t know a lot about him, but I wouldn’t expect big minutes from him.
|(1) Point Guard||Tyson Carter||Devin Butts|
|(2) Combo Guard||Nick Weatherspoon||D.J. Stewart||Iverson Molinar|
|(3) Wing||Robert Woodard||Elias King|
|(4) Combo Forward||Reggie Perry||E.J. Datcher||Prince Oduro|
|(5) Post||Abdul Ado||Keyshawn Feazell||Quinten Post|
Like a lot of teams clumped in the middle of the SEC pack, the Bulldogs have a handful of proven assets and then a host of questions. You can build a quality starting rotation, but the task is fleshing out what a bench unit might look like. Judged on the quality of its starters, State isn’t dealing with much a drop-off, but until Howland knows what he has in reserve, it’s hard to get too excited about the roster he has on his hands.
I like Carter and Weatherspoon handling the ball most of the time. Woodard is a little raw on the wing, but he can clean up a lot of mistakes. And if Perry takes another step offensively, you’ve got the start of something good. After that, who knows.
My Projected Record: 18-13 | KenPom Projected Record: 17-12
|Nov 5||Home||Florida International||204||W|
|Nov 8||Home||Sam Houston State||160||W|
|Nov 17||TBA||New Orleans||265||W|
|Nov 22||Neutral||Villanova / MTSU||8 / 167||L|
|Dec 5||Home||Louisiana Tech||110||W|
|Dec 14||Neutral||Kansas State||49||L|
|Dec 22||Home*||New Mexico State||64||W|
|Dec 30||Home||Kent State||118||W|
By now, we know Howland’s scheduling philosophy: pile up wins and do it early. Three years ago, the Bulldogs faced a soft non-conference schedule (No. 323 SOS) and started 9-3 before stumbling to a 15-15 overall mark. In 2018, another thin slate set them up with a 12-1 mark entering SEC play, where the Bulldogs only mustered a .500 finish. And to no one’s surprise, Howland did it again last season.
This go-around, though, there are a couple of tough road trips dotting the schedule. State could catch Villanova in the second round of the Myrtle Beach Invitational. A date with Kansas State, which is fresh off a Big 12 title, might be on the calendar in the Never Forget Tribute Classic. Finally, the Big 12-SEC challenge ships them west to face Oklahoma. All of those are tough but winnable — if the Bulldogs answer some lingering questions.
|Feb 11||Away||Ole Miss||60||W|
|Feb 19||Home||South Carolina||69||W|
|Feb 22||Away||Texas A&M||58||W|
|Mar 3||Away||South Carolina||69||L|
|Mar 7||Home||Ole Miss||60||L|
When trying to discern the difficulty of a schedule, it’s always smart to start with the home-and-homes. In State’s case, they’ll encounter a lot of teams like them: rosters with a few known commodities and potential flaws. When it comes to Ole Miss, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Alabama, any of those teams could conceivably finish 12-6 or 6-12. How the Bulldogs fare in those 10 games — I have them at 4-6 — will go a long way to shaking out where they land in the standings.
However, you only have to flip a couple of results to change the perspective on the season radically. Road games against Florida and Kentucky are also a benefit since you won’t be taking a loss at The Hump. Two home games are essential for the Bulldogs— Arkansas and Tennessee. The Vols lost three critical pieces and are resetting this season, and a win could put this group over the top.
Buying into the Bulldogs probably means you’re bullish on what Howland’s done so far. He’s been reliable but not great in a league that’s steadily grown tougher. For me, it’s hard to completely buy into a program whose results have been uneven in games of consequence.
After relying upon Peters and Weatherspoon, the Bulldogs are going to have to learn to play and score in late clock situations without their go-to options.
If you’re an optimist, you’ll note that the schedule sets up nicely and that Howland’s teams usually hold up defensively. However, I’m not convinced they can repeat their 117.7 offensive rating, which ranked 13th nationally. Since arriving in Starkville, Howland’s best defense finished 40th in KenPom, and a lack of proven guards makes it hard to hit that benchmark.
Inside, Perry and Ado can hold their own, and Woodward’s athleticism is a plus. Success will hinge on Nick Weatherspoon finding elusive consistency and Carter scaling up his production to starter’s minutes. Even then, what’s behind them?
This is why I’m skeptical despite a lot of national writers and analysts investing stock in the Bulldogs. Upon closer inspection, there were stretches of mediocrity last season, and that’s before you consider the departure of two key guards. You might even wonder if Howland has lost his fastball.
I’m not quite going to go that far here, but it speaks to the difficulty of the job at MSU and the current state of the SEC. The league’s coaching roster is deep and getting better each year. A top-line talent like Perry presents you a window of opportunity, but finding a way to the NCAA tournament means executing a smooth transition.
No doubt, the Bulldogs are going to trot out elite size, which includes Prince Oduro, E.J. Datcher and Keyshawn Feazell. The starting backcourt should be fine, but the key is finding depth behind Carter, Weatherspoon and Woodard. Right now, it doesn’t appear that Howland has solved that problem. If the a collection of freshmen exceed expectations, this team can return to the NCAA tournament. We’ll see whether that comes to pass.
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.
* - 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.