Be careful what you wish for.
Sometimes, a lesser-funded program benefits from getting old and staying old. After a slow rebuild in Starkville, Mississippi State and coach Ben Howland are learning how hard it is to strike that balance. After finishing in the top of the conference and earning an NCAA tournament bid, the veterans who made up that roster are now gone.
Previous SEC Previews
#13 Mississippi State Bulldogs
Last Season: 20-11 (11-7 in conference) No. 48 KenPom
My Prediction: 9-18 (4-14, 13th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 12th in conference
KenPom Projection: 9-12 (7-11 in conference) No. 78
HEAD COACH: Ben Howland | Sixth Season, 98 - 67
After a fairly meteoric rise in the coaching ranks, which landed him at UCLA, Howland’s prickly reputation sidelined him for several seasons after his time ended in Westwood. But there’s no doubt: Howland can coach a team up. Now, he faces a new challenge. Howland’s workhorses have moved on, and the Bulldogs didn’t land a recruiting class filled with early contributors. The Bulldogs will be tough and defend, but is it enough to exceed modest expectations?
Seat Temp: COOL
The fallout from the Rick Stansbury era was abrupt. Rick Ray was a good man, but he never gained traction. Howland was competent enough to take the parts Ray brought in and infuse them with some quality recruits, ending a decade-long absence from the NCAA tournament in 2019. The Bulldogs were within shouting distance of the bubble last season, but now comes a hard reset.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
It’s easier to ask who left instead of who’s back. Reggie Perry, a sturdy 6-10 anchor, moved on after a dominant sophomore season. The double-double machine will be missed along the front line. One of the most underrated players in the SEC last year was Robert Woodard, a supremely athletic combo forward who didn’t require the ball in his hands to create offense. Nick Weatherspoon was enigmatic, but he was a reliable scoring threat if nothing else. More than anything, the Bulldogs will miss Tyson Carter. Carter was a cool customer who handled the ball well, shot it consistently, and kept the game moving at his own pace.
Howland kept his rotation tight, an approach that led to a few players to seek fresh starts elsewhere. The loss of Elias King hurts the most. While his minutes were scant, King’s athleticism would have filled a crucial need this season.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
|Tolu Smith||R-SO||POST||REDSHIRT - Transfer|
D.J. Stewart | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD
While the Bulldogs don’t bring back a bunch of production, Stewart is the most reliable returner. He started 15 of the last 16 games and is a capable shooter and scorer. The Mississippi native was a well regarded prospect coming out of high school and really came into his own as a redshirt freshman. If you’re looking for someone who could make a difference in the progress of State this year, it’ll likely fall onto the shoulders of Stewart.
Iverson Molinar provided a solid option off the bench at combo guard, and he should contend for starter minutes this year. Tolu Smith was a little used post at Western Kentucky before transferring to MSU. (Granted, he was behind Charles Bassey, a former 5-star recruit.) Quinten Post didn’t play a lot last season, but was a well regarded prospect from Germany as a pick-and-pop option.
Abdul Ado | SENIOR | POST
Ado is one of those names who’s been talked about plenty in recent offseasons. He’s an adept defender with a solid build and good mobility, but he’s yet to take the step towards offensive threat. Without Perry around to collect a lion’s share of the possessions, Howland will ask more of Ado on the block. That might not be the right call. Last year, Ado was featured on 24 post-up possessions and made just 9 shots. Still, Ado has good qualities and was much better as roll man or hanging out in the dunker spot. Either way, expect Ado to see more minutes and more shot attempts this year.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|R-SR||Jalen Johnson||6'6||210||Grad Transfer||Louisiana||CF|
The most important addition is clearly Deivon Smith. In need of a scoring guard, Howland reeled in an explosive combo guard who’ll play starter minutes. The rest of the class was rounded out with more developmental prospects, some of whom who could be asked to take on a bigger share than they probably should.
Keondre Montgomery is a skilled wing or combo forward, but his low shot pocket needs some work. Andersson Garcia moves well and has good athleticism for the wing spot. Derek Fountain looks like he’s still got some developing to do, but he’s got several other bigs in front of him so he’ll have the time to develop.
Meanwhile, graduate transfer Jalen Johnson comes to the Bulldogs after a solid run at Louisiana-Lafayette. Given some leeway after transferring in from Saint Louis, Johnson became a steady producer. Javian Davis might be able to help around the rim, but he was little used at Alabama a year ago, so I wouldn’t bank hard on a big role for State.
|(1) Point Guard||Deivon Smith|
|(2) Combo Guard||Iverson Molinar||Andersson Garcia||Cameron Matthews|
|(3) Wing||DJ Stewart||Keondre Montgomery|
|(4) Combo Forward||Jalen Johnson||Javian Davis||Derek Fountain|
|(5) Post||Abdul Ado||Tolu Smith||Quinten Post|
It’s usually about this part of the exercise when you can start to figure out who might be good or not. I’ll admit, though, that I’m not sure what MSU is going to do. They’re probably going to start with Ado, Stewart and Smith. Johnson gives them the most flexibility at the combo forward spot, and I’m giving the end in experience at the other guard spot to Iverson Molinar. The position battles I’m interested in will unfold around the basket. Who can give State offense from the five spot? And with Johnson’s flexibility, does Howland use Davis more at the four, sliding Stewart up to the wing?
My Projected Record: 9-18 | KenPom Projected Record: 13-13
|Nov 26||Neutral||Liberty / Purdue||162 / 25||W|
|Nov 30||Home||Texas State||135||W|
|Dec 4||Home||North Texas||103||W|
|Dec 8||Home||Jackson State||305||W|
|Dec 16||Home||Central Arkansas||257||W|
|Dec 21||Neutral||Utah State||69||L|
|Jan 30||Home||Iowa State||67||L|
Howland hasn’t exactly made a name of lining up a murderers row of non-conference games since taking the job in Starkville, but this is a pretty solid slate. Opening with a good, but not great Clemson team will test the Bulldogs early, and there are plenty of winnable home games against some solid mid majors like Texas State and North Texas. And of course, Utah State and Iowa State are quality programs. The potential stumbling blocks are there, but if MSU can navigate this early stretch, they can catch some momentum to exceed expectations.
|Jan 13||Home||Texas A&M||68||W|
|Jan 19||Home||Ole Miss||42||W|
|Feb 6||Away||South Carolina||60||L|
|Feb 20||Away||Ole Miss||42||L|
|Feb 24||Home||South Carolina||60||L|
|Mar 3||Away||Texas A&M||68||L|
Opening the SEC schedule against Georgia is another opportunity to change some minds. Finding a couple of wins in their first four games might set the Bulldogs up to surprise. A home game against Texas A&M is winnable, as is a visit from Ole Miss. You can envision any start ranging from a solid 4-3 to a disastrous 0-7. They also caught a few breaks with their home-and-home opponents in Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Alabama. None are projected to be in the top four of the standings and all have flaws in their roster.
This season should be viewed for what it is: a reset. A year ago, Perry and an experienced cast of characters boosted the Bulldogs into NCAA tournament contention. But recruiting five-star talent can also create a vacuum, one that’s harder to fill if you’re not Kentucky or Duke, who just reloads with more freshman 5-star talent.
And that’s the ask this season.
Replacing Tyson Carter with Deivon Smith might stem the tide a little bit at guard, and D.J. Stewart does have the ability to take another step forward. The rest of the roster, though, offers more questions than solutions. Can Abdul Ado, a deft defender, become a consistent offensive threat? Will Jalen Johnson’s offensive improvement at Louisiana translate to the SEC? Are any of the incoming freshmen capable of carrying an offensive role on their own?
Ben Howland has dealt with undermanned rosters before. Since showing up in Starkville, he’s never fielded a team worst than 88th in KenPom or finished 6-12 finish in league play. That first season was a reset, but it was followed by two stellar recruiting classes. This roster lacks the same raw talent of Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mario Kegler, Lamar Peters, and others. The way this team works is if Stewart, Smith, and Ado can equal that level of production.
It’s hard to see that quite working out. Howland’s teams will always defend, but you have to wonder where the points are going to come from?
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
Howland has a long history of putting out good teams who compete hard and take good shots. There are multiple athletic guards and a few forwards who can stretch the floor, and it could be enough to piece together a consistent enough offense to get by.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
Despite having more talented teams in recent years, the Bulldogs have never quite broken through. They peaked with a No. 5 seed a few years ago but have otherwise been on the outside looking in on the NCAA tournament. With those teams falling short on expectations, this team has all the makings of a kind of bottoming out year.
About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.
* - 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.