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Ben Howland has Mississippi State ready to contend... in 2018

The Bulldogs are talented, but frighteningly inexperienced.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Mississippi State Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

Sometimes, you have to look deeper than a team’s record to see the real picture. On paper, Mississippi State improved from 13-19, 6-12 in the SEC in 2014-15, to 14-17, 7-11 in the SEC in 2015-16.

On the other hand, the Bulldogs went from being outscored by 8.7 points per 100 possessions in 2014-15, to actually outscoring conference opponents by a point per 100 possessions in 2015-16. Ben Howland’s first Mississippi State team wasn’t great, but 8 of the Bulldogs’ 11 SEC losses came by less than 10 points; the Bulldogs were 3-8 in games decided by single digits.

Mississippi State’s improvement last season was almost entirely on offense. The Bulldogs went from 97th to 93rd nationally in defensive efficiency, but the offense improved from an awful 245th in 2014-15 to an acceptable 91st last year.

What’s more, while freshman Quinndary Weatherspoon (and, to a lesser extent, the much-hyped Malik Newman) helped, Howland achieved a lot of improvement simply by getting more out of the holdovers. Gavin Ware not only went from 10 ppg to 15.4 ppg, but his shooting percentage jumped from 50 percent to 61.4 percent. Role players Travis Daniels, I.J. Ready, and Fred Thomas became more efficient.

If there’s bad news, the Bulldogs are basically starting over in Howland’s second year. Last year’s Mississippi State team had five seniors in what was basically a nine-man rotation; Ware, Craig Sword, Travis Daniels, Fred Thomas, and Johnny Zuppardo are all gone. What’s more, touted freshman Malik Newman -- after a disappointing freshman season — declared for the NBA Draft, but ultimately decided to transfer out of the program. In all, the Bulldogs return just 33 percent of their minutes and scoring from last season. Mississippi State might well be the SEC’s least experienced basketball team this year.

That said, the program does have a nice building block for the future in Quinndary Weatherspoon, who was the team’s third-leading scorer in 2015-16 as a freshman — and surprisingly played better than Newman, in spite of being far less hyped. Weatherspoon is starting to show up on NBA draft boards.

The good news? Mississippi State has some talent coming into the program.

While there are eight freshmen and three sophomores on the roster, Mississippi State’s last two recruiting classes have ranked 22nd and 9th nationally. The 2016 class was highly rated in large part because Mississippi State signed seven players, but there are some talented players in the class.

But don’t get any of the newcomers confused with one-and-dones. There are a couple of players at the back end of the top 50 and a handful more in the top 100; there’s also at least one player who might not play this year. This class is certainly better than Mississippi State’s recruiting classes (at least since Rick Stansbury left town), but this isn’t a John Calipari class or anything close to it. The influx of talent is great for the program, but it’s more likely something that will be felt in a year or two than right away.

That’s reflected in the distribution of the TSK contributor rankings -- while the Bulldogs ranked in a tie for eighth in the poll, just one contributor sees them as an eighth-place team. Three contributors picked them sixth; the other three picked the Bulldogs 11th or 12th. That sums up the debate on Mississippi State: maybe all the freshman have an immediate impact and Mississippi State is a borderline NCAA Tournament team, as a 6th-place finish would imply. Or maybe they need a year, and Mississippi State struggles as a result. I’m personally in the second camp (I picked MSU to finish 11th) but I could see how they might end up being better than that. But to me, it feels like this team is a year away.

Backcourt

# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG SPG WS Notes
Craig Sword 29.2 13.0 3.9 3.0 3.1 1.3 2.0
Malik Newman 27.7 11.3 2.8 2.2 1.9 0.4 1.4 Transfer (Kansas)
Travis Daniels 23.3 5.7 4.5 0.8 1.0 0.5 1.6
Fred Thomas 20.3 5.5 2.9 1.0 0.5 0.3 1.5
15 I.J. Ready 5'11" 166 SR. 0.8689 29.5 9.2 2.6 4.5 1.6 1.3 2.3
11 Quinndary Weatherspoon 6'4" 205 SO. 0.9390 27.0 12.0 4.7 1.4 1.5 1.4 2.9
1 Lamar Peters 6'0" 188 FR. 0.9453
2 Eli Wright 6'4" 203 FR. 0.9664
3 Xavian Stapleton 6'6" 195 SO. NR 15.5 6.7 2.1 0.3 0.7 0.7 1.9 Transfer (Louisiana Tech); sat out 2015-16
4 Mario Kegler 6'7" 220 FR. 0.9785
23 Tyson Carter 6'4" 167 FR. 0.9453

Malik Newman may have gotten the preseason publicity last year, but Quinndary Weatherspoon wound up being the best freshman on the team, and one of the best in the SEC. The 6’4” sophomore from Canton, MS, played in all 31 games and started 17, and averaged 12.0 ppg with an effective FG% of 52.0. And now, with basically everybody else gone from last year’s team, Weatherspoon has a chance to establish himself as the team’s leader and the focal point of the offense. He showed some of what he can do in the Bulldogs’ summer trip to Italy, where he averaged 23.3 ppg in four games. Still, Weatherspoon might be best suited as the second option on offense.

But it’s not clear just who else can be the first option on offense. 5’11” point guard I.J. Ready, the lone senior on the team, is a good creator and distributor on the offensive end; he’s also a career 40 percent shooter. Ready also led the team by playing 29.5 minutes per game last year, and while freshman Lamar Peters will get some minutes at the point, Ready should be the starter. He’s also a solid defender with 108 steals in three years at Mississippi State.

While Ready and Weatherspoon are penciled in to start, the Bulldogs do have a few newcomers who will compete for playing time in the backcourt. Xavian Stapleton, a 6’6” sophomore, is the one other player with Division I experience, having played his freshman year at Louisiana Tech before transferring. Stapleton averaged 6.7 ppg in his lone season at Louisiana Tech, though he shot just 28.7 percent on three-pointers. And it’s probably not a good idea to rely on a guy who was a role player on a C-USA team for big things.

Three freshmen are also on the roster. Lamar Peters, a 6’0” freshman from New Orleans, will likely serve as Ready’s backup this year – though he’s talented enough to take the starting job himself if Howland feels like gambling on the freshman. With Ready out for most of the Italy trip, Peters averaged 11 ppg and dished out 24 assists. Tyson Carter, a 6’4” local product from Starkville, averaged 20.5 ppg on the team’s Italy trip. Eli Wright, a 6’4” freshman from Owensboro, KY, will also compete for playing time at the two-guard spot after averaging 15.3 ppg in Italy.

With little experience up front, though, Howland may want to go with a three-guard offense and that could mean extended playing time for one or both of the young guards. The Bulldogs also have a considerable amount of length in the backcourt and that could help make the SEC’s sixth-best defense (on a per-possession basis) even better; the Bulldogs last year surrendered the second-worst opponents’ three-point percentage in SEC play. Only Tennessee was worse at defending the perimeter.

Another freshman, Mario Kegler, missed the Italy trip but was cleared to play shortly before the start of the fall semester. Kegler, a 6’7’, 220-pound wing from Jackson, was the 52nd-ranked recruit in the country according to 247 Sports after playing his senior year at Oak Hill Academy. He’s a good shooter for his size and is a candidate to start immediately on the wing – though if, as expected, Howland goes with a three-guard offense he’ll effectively be playing the power forward position. Kegler could emerge as the team’s first scoring option if it’s not Quinndary Weatherspoon.

Frontcourt

# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG BPG WS Notes
Gavin Ware 28.1 15.4 7.8 0.9 1.8 1.1 4.3
Johnny Zuppardo 11.5 3.2 2.2 0.2 0.4 0.2 0.8
Fallou Ndoye 7.5 0.3 1.2 0.2 0.5 0.2 0.0 Transfer (CS Bakersfield)
Demetrius Houston 6.0 2.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 Transfer (Alabama State)
35 Aric Holman 6'10" 222 SO. 0.9356 9.2 1.9 1.9 0.4 0.8 0.7 0.0
5 Joe Strugg 6'9" 196 FR. 0.8213 Redshirted 2015-16
24 Abdul Ado 6'11" 246 FR. 0.9256 Not yet cleared to play
34 Schnider Herard 6'10" 250 FR. 0.9807
45 E.J. Datcher 6'9" 240 FR. 0.8426

The Bulldogs have a lot of bodies and a considerable amount of length in the frontcourt. They also have a grand total of 194 minutes of Division I basketball, all played by 6’10” sophomore Aric Holman in 2015-16.

Holman, the lone holdover from last year’s frontcourt, managed to start three games for the Bulldogs and showed some potential as a shot-blocker. In spite of playing just nine minutes per game – and missing the team’s first ten games – Holman finished the season with the fourth-highest block total on the team. He was also quite raw offensively, scoring just 39 points all season – and committing 37 fouls and 16 turnovers. Holman could develop into a good interior defender, but he has a long way to go before he can stay on the floor for long stretches and not be a black hole on the offensive end.

But what the Bulldogs lack in experience, they make up for in sheer numbers. In addition to Holman, Mississippi State has four other players who are 6’9” or taller. Joe Strugg, a 6’9” redshirt freshman from Montgomery, AL, sat out last year due to eligibility issues but did average 3.3 ppg and 2.3 rpg in Italy. But the best bet for playing time down low may be 6’10”, 250-pound freshman Schnider Herard. Herard, originally from Haiti via Plano, TX, was the highest-rated recruit in the Bulldogs’ class and already has the size to bang down low in the SEC. Despite being a bit more of a project on the offensive end, he did average 8 ppg on the Italian trip.

E.J. Datcher, a 6’9”, 240-pound freshman from Vincent, AL, was a late addition to the Bulldogs’ recruiting class and adds some depth up front, though it’s a big jump from small-school high school ball in Alabama to the SEC. Datcher served as a reserve on the Italian trip and might be a candidate to redshirt if not for the status of 6’11”, 246-pound freshman Abdul Ado. Ado, a four-star recruit from Chattanooga, TN, was not cleared to play by the NCAA at the start of the fall semester and may have to sit out 2016-17.

Schedule

Date Opponent Time (CT) TV
11/4 Delta State (exhibition) 7:00 PM
11/11 Norfolk State 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/17 to 11/20 Charleston Classic (Charleston, SC)
11/25 Lehigh 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/28 Northwestern State 6:00 PM SEC Network
12/1 Oregon State 8:00 PM ESPNU
12/4 Georgia State 4:00 PM SEC Network+
12/14 East Tennessee State 8:00 PM SEC Network
12/19 vs. Southern Miss (Jackson, MS) 8:00 PM ESPNU
12/22 Morehead State 6:00 PM SEC Network
12/29 UMKC 7:00 PM SEC Network+
1/3 Alabama 7:30 PM SEC Network
1/7 at LSU 2:30 PM SEC Network
1/10 at Arkansas 8:00 PM SEC Network
1/14 Texas A&M 12:00 PM CBS
1/17 Kentucky 6:00 PM ESPN
1/21 at Tennessee 5:00 PM SEC Network
1/25 Missouri 6:00 PM SEC Network
1/28 at Alabama 5:00 PM SEC Network
1/31 at Ole Miss 6:00 PM SEC Network
2/4 Tennessee 2:30 PM SEC Network
2/7 at Auburn 8:00 PM ESPNU
2/11 South Carolina 7:00 PM ESPN2
2/14 at Georgia 8:00 PM ESPNU
2/18 Florida 1:00 PM ESPN/ESPN2
2/21 Ole Miss 8:00 PM ESPN2
2/25 at Vanderbilt 3:00 PM ESPNU
2/28 at South Carolina 6:00 PM ESPNU
3/4 LSU 5:00 PM SEC Network

While some might be expecting the Bulldogs to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid, Ben Howland scheduled like he has an inexperienced team that’s not expected to do much. Aside from a Charleston Classic field that includes Villanova – albeit on the opposite side of the bracket – the Bulldogs will only play one team that made last season’s NCAA Tournament (Oregon State) in non-conference play. In addition, the three games in Charleston will be the team’s only games outside the state of Mississippi, counting a neutral-site game against Southern Miss in Jackson. Mississippi State might not improve all that much but could still put up a pretty record in November and December.

The SEC schedule isn’t all that daunting, either. The Bulldogs draw home-and-homes against what are likely to be rebuilding outfits at Alabama, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and LSU, while drawing home games in their lone contests against Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Florida. The latter might be good news if Mississippi State is strong enough to threaten for an NCAA Tournament bid, as all three could represent opportunities to impress the Selection Committee. But if things aren’t going well, well, you might rather draw teams like Georgia, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Auburn at home to pad the record. In any case, though, the overall schedule shouldn’t be too daunting for a young team.

Outlook

In recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to the one-and-done phenomenon, where top freshmen come into the college game, dominate for a year, and then go off to the NBA. And while that’s true at the top, below that, freshmen are (mostly) still freshmen.

Ben Howland has upgraded the talent level pretty quickly at Mississippi State. Following a top-25 recruiting class in 2015, Howland signed a top-10 recruiting class in 2016. But these aren’t one-and-dones. Mississippi State will have some nights where they look like a contender, and they’ll have nights where nothing is working. It comes with the territory when you have a team with eight freshmen, three sophomores, and only one senior — however talented all those underclassmen might be.

A couple of years ago, Vanderbilt had a similar team — a budding star who was a sophomore to go along with a bunch of freshmen who were four-star recruits -- and the Commodores went 9-9 in the SEC and made the NIT quarterfinals. That should give you an idea of the upside of a team like this. The floor, though, is a lot worse than that, because while Mississippi State’s underclassmen were more highly thought of by recruiting services than those at Missouri or Tennessee, the experience level on all three teams is about the same.

In short, there’s a reason why going from 11th in the SEC to the NCAA Tournament in the span of one year is such a rare achievement. And it’s especially rare when the team has to replace 67 percent of its scoring and minutes played from the prior year. Mississippi State looks like they’ll be a contender... in 2018 and 2019. This year is going to be about building for the future and figuring out how the parts fit together. Yes, Mississippi State could make the NCAA Tournament this year — I won’t rule that out -- but another finish in the SEC’s bottom four is probably about as likely. There’s just such a wide range of outcomes with a team like this that it’s difficult to say anything for certain.