With solid returnees and a healthy crop of incoming freshman, Mississippi State looks to gain elusive NCAA bid in 2018-19
As great as the NCAA basketball tournament has been over the last decade, there’s been one thing missing: the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
For 9 straight seasons, the selection committee has looked through the peephole at MSU’s resume, but the door to Oz remains barred shut. Now Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland hopes his team has the brains, the heart, and the nerve to secure that elusive bid in 2018-19.
Indeed there’s plenty of reason for excitement in Starkville, as State returns its top six scorers who accounted for 83 percent of the offensive workload last season. Leading the way are the Brothers Weatherspoon—Quinndary and Nick—who comprise the Bulldog backcourt and bring plenty of offensive punch (combining for over 25 ppg) to the shindig. Nick has been battling an ankle injury during preseason, but look for him to recover and become a major factor in the team’s success. Six-foot-10 Aric Holman, who was seventh in the SEC in 2017-18 with 66 blocked shots, brings an intimidating post presence, and 6-9 signee and McDonald’s All-American Reggie Perry should bolster the paint.
Perry, a Thomasville, Georgia, native and son of former MSU star Al Perry, and D.J. Stewart, a high-flying lefty from Riverside High School in Grace, Mississippi, highlighted a recruiting class ranked ninth in the country by Lindy’s Sports. Add 6-6 newcomer Robert Woodard to the mix and you’ve got reason to be optimistic for years to come.
Howland was thankful that NCAA rules permitted four hours of summer work per week as a opposed to two, allowing more time to mold his talented, but raw, incoming frosh. “Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard, D.J. Stewart are all doing a great job for us,” Howland said at SEC Media Day on Oct. 17. “Those are the three incoming freshman that will play this year. Reggie and Robert Woodard have men’s bodies. Reggie’s 6-9, 247, Robert’s 6-6, 230. D.J. has done a great job with his body. A lot of times freshmen are learning how much bigger and stronger the players are at this level. They still have a lot to learn, obviously. They’re freshman. But they are doing a phenomenal job with their development.”
Before Howland arrived, the Bulldogs had won only 37 games in three seasons and were 13-41 in conference play under coach Rick Ray. But Howland has slowly picked up the shards of a shattered program. In 2015-16, the team was 14-17. The next year, 16-16. With a 22-11 record (9-9 SEC) last year, Mississippi State probably should have made the field of 64, but Howland’s team played in the NIT instead, making it all the way to Madison Square Garden in New York before being sent home by Penn State in the semifinals. The Bulldogs finished 25-12.
Mississippi State basketball has a rich tradition, as across the years some good basketball has come out of Starkville. Coach Babe McCarthy, the namesake for the old gymnasium on the MSU campus, cobbled together the first truly great MSU basketball team in 1958-59. Led by Bailey Howell, who averaged 27.5 ppg and 15.2 rpg, the Bulldogs went 24-1 and were crowned SEC champions. But because an unwritten Mississippi law forbade its basketball teams from participating against integrated teams, the team surrendered its NCAA tournament bid and Kentucky went instead. Howell played in the NBA for 12 seasons, won two championships with the Boston Celtics, and averaged 18 ppg.
McCarthy found magic again in 1961-62 as MSU went 24-1 with the help of the trio of Leland Mitchell, WD Red Stroud, and Joe Dan Gold. In 1963, in one of the more poignant moments in MSU basketball history, the Bulldogs tore down the curtain of segregation by playing a Loyola (Ill.) team in East Lansing, Michigan, with four African-Americans on the roster.
Years of flux followed the departure of McCarthy, and the program did not produce a 20-win season again until 1990-91 under head coach Richard Williams. A former high school teacher, Williams directed the Bulldogs from 1986-98, his tenure culminating with a Final Four berth in 1995-96. That great MSU team—spearheaded by Erick Dampier and Dontae’ Jones—took Syracuse to the wire and gave Starkville arguably its best season in any sport.
Rick Stansbury took over after Williams left the program and guided the Bulldogs to nine 20-win seasons. But Stansbury, the winningest coach in MSU basketball history, could not manufacture a run like his predecessor, and MSU failed to get past the second round in six tournament appearances.
After the inauspicious three-year tenure of Rick Ray, Howland, who made stops at Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh, and UCLA before arriving at Mississippi State, has brought stability to the program and supervised steady improvement over the last three seasons. Howland led UCLA to three 30-win seasons and back-to-back Final Fours in 2006-07 and 2007-08 before his ouster in 2013. After taking a year off, California-native Howland found a second wind in the unlikeliest of places: the state of Mississippi.
Now as Howland approaches the tee at Year 4, the wind of experience will be at his back.
“Those guys are really vested in that jersey, Mississippi State Bulldogs. And they are providing great leadership,” Howland said of his returners. “I think that’s the difference we’ve seen in our team this year, that our players have really bought into the culture that they’ve helped establish and passing along to the younger players.”
Prior to SEC Media Days, Mississippi State was predicted to finish fourth in the conference by a panel of SEC and national media. Quinndary Weatherspoon made All-SEC second team. While Howland thinks this is all well and good, none of that will matter when the Bulldogs lace it up on Nov. 9 against Austin Peay. The Bulldogs’ hearty non-conference slate, which includes Arizona State, Clemson, and Cincinnati, should initiate the newcomers quickly and prepare the Bulldogs for the rigors of SEC play.
Howland understands that the Return to Oz won’t occur by Oz-mosis, and that the Bulldogs can’t sit back and expect results to just happen—they are going to have to go get it. “It’s good to have high expectations, that’s what we want,” said Howland. “But at the end of the day you still have to go out and prove it every night.” H&A
Photos courtesy MSU Athletics
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