Mississippi State Basketball Begins its Path Back to Another NCAA Tournament

A season ago, Mississippi State basketball was at a crossroads. Either Coach Ben Howland would either put the Bulldogs back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, or it felt like the program might become truly irrelevant forever. Howland delivered, as the Bulldogs earned a five seed in the bracket before a first round loss to Liberty, but now the question becomes can he build upon that foundation, or was it a flash in the pan? Losing three veterans like Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, and Lamar Peters means Howland has a lot of production to make up, but the MSU starting five is loaded with experience and some high ceiling talent. On Thursday, Coach Howland and his players spoke to the media for the first time since last March, and thus begins their quest for back to back appearances in the Big Dance.

Speaking to Coach Howland, I will tell you that he is among the most reserved and even keel coaches I have covered, but his excitement was obvious yesterday. You really get the impression he likes his team, and at first glance, he should. Nick Weatherspoon and Tyson Carter are a veteran backcourt who can both play on and off the ball, Abdul Ado is a grinder down low who will provide defense, and Reggie Perry and Robert Woodard II are potential superstars. If the Bulldogs can find some depth, which is a big question mark, there’s no reason they can’t be right back in the mix for postseason play.

Coach Howland offered us the chance to watch practice following the press conference, something we haven’t been able to do in my time on the Bulldog beat. Seated above the floor of the Humphrey Coliseum, I was struck by how much energy and intensity was on the floor. The Bulldogs are a little less than a month from tipoff, but the atmosphere on the court felt like that of a game. In particular, I was struck by how hard Weatherspoon was going. Coach Howland finally made official that the junior point guard will sit the first 10 games of the season, so this will be the only action he sees until mid-December. Weatherspoon was incredibly vocal, whether letting out a scream after a made bucket or pushing his teammates to defend harder. The same could be said of Carter, who will fill in for Weatherspoon at the point until the suspension ends. Carter’s shot remains as smooth as ever, but now he’s being asked to step into a true leadership role for the first time in his career. That could be a key for the Bulldogs in the early going, as they will have to rely on youth coming off the bench more this season than last year. Two true freshman, point guard Iverson Molinar and swingman Elias King, will factor heavily into the early rotation, along with Siena transfer Prince Oduro, and holdovers from last season junior forward Keyshawn Feazell and redshirt freshman DJ Stewart, a player Howland nearly had to play in the later stages of the 2019 campaign when Weatherspoon’s suspension was announced. Stewart will be expected to fill the role Carter held off the bench, instant offense from the perimeter. I was impressed watching Oduro and King, both look comfortable shooting in the mid-range, with King displaying some three point shooting as well.

Speaking to the players after practice, one thing was obvious to me, they are a confident group. In Perry’s case, why shouldn’t he be? He is coming off a summer where he lead Team USA to a first place finish in the FIBA Under 19 tournament, where he was named Team MVP. Howland says he wants his sophomore power forward to be a double double machine this season, and if that occurs, it goes a long way in cementing the Bulldogs back into the NCAA’s.

Carter spoke about transition from the two guard to the point, and how he has to continue to be aggressive and find his shot even when he’s in the distributor’s role. I feel Carter is the potential key for the Bulldogs, he’s such a good shooter when he’s on, if he can consistently deliver 13-15 points per game for MSU, with what the rest of the offense should be counted on for, the Bulldogs could have one of the top scoring teams in the SEC.

Woodard is a player who might have the highest ceiling on the team, even more so than Perry. There were times a season ago where he looked unstoppable on both ends of the court, mixing highlight reel dunks with ferocious blocked shots. He also provides another ball handler and threat from three point range. He might make the biggest jump of anybody from a season ago, and could well be a potential All-SEC player by year’s end.

This Bulldog team will be an interesting one to follow. Fans have stayed away from the Humphrey Coliseum in droves over the past five years, and even later in last season when it was obvious the Bulldogs were going back to the NCAA Tournament, the crowds were unimpressive. If the Bulldogs start hot this year, will the support finally return to the men’s side of basketball in Starkville? Can Howland prove that he’s got the program back on stable footing, and that postseason play will be more consistent going forward? Will Perry explode nationally this year and be one of the top prospects in the NBA Draft? There are a lot of questions for the Bulldogs to answer between now and March, but at the very least, the team appears to be capable of at the very least meeting last season’s results.

Photo courtesy of Mississippi State athletics