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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Mississippi State was the second least-experienced team in all of Division I last year, and still went 16-16. That’s a hint of things to come.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Mississippi State vs LSU Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State Bulldogs 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: Ben Howland (30-33 in 2 years at Mississippi State; 429-241 overall, 21 years)

Last Year: 16-16 (6-12 SEC); KenPom rating: 88

Returning Starters: 4

Returning possession-minutes: 73.3%

Recruiting class ranking: #62 nationally, #12 in SEC


How Did We Get Here?

Ben Howland’s third year is when he gets things rolling.

At Northern Arizona, Howland went 14-38 in his first two years and 21-7 in his third year, setting a school record for wins. At Pitt, his first two teams went 32-29; his third team went 29-6, made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years and the Sweet 16 for the first time in 28. At UCLA, Howland went 29-28 in his first two years and 32-7 in his third, making the Final Four for the first time in 11 years.

So far, he’s following the same pattern at Mississippi State. Howland inherited an experienced team from Rick Ray, but went 14-17 in his first year. Last year’s team went 9-3 in nonconference play (albeit against a weak schedule) and sat at 14-8, 5-5 in the SEC before a seven-game losing streak led to a 16-16 finish.

Nine players on last year’s team averaged at least 10 minutes per game, and eight of those were freshmen and sophomores. Mississippi State ranked 350th (of 351 Division I teams) in experience and it showed. After signing the country’s #10 recruiting class in 2016, Mississippi State beat Arkansas on the road, played Kentucky tough at home, and while they went 6-12 in the SEC, eight of those losses came by single digits. On the other hand, four of the Bulldogs’ seven wins (counting the SEC Tournament) came against league bottom-feeders LSU and Missouri.

Mississippi State’s stat profile looks like that of a young team with some talent. On the offensive end, the Bulldogs were fairly good at scoring inside the arc (50.5 percent on twos, fourth in the conference), but coughed the ball up a lot — they ranked 12th in the SEC in turnover rate. They also allowed opponents to shoot 45.8 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, the worst rate in the SEC. They weren’t a good rebounding team (12th in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage) and they shot just 66.5 percent from the foul line in SEC play — which, um, might have had something to do with their struggles in close games.

That said, this is still a pretty young team. Howland’s first two recruiting classes at Mississippi State ranked #22 and #10 nationally, though arguably the best recruit in both classes (Malik Newman in 2015, Mario Kegler in 2016) transferred out of the program after a year. Newman is now at Kansas and Kegler is now at Baylor. But there’s still a good amount of talent on this roster, and there isn’t a single senior on scholarship. Of the 11 scholarship players on the roster, there are five sophomores and three freshmen.

The 2017 recruiting class is only ranked #62 nationally, but that’s a bit misleading because it only included two players. Mississippi State signed four-star recruit Garrison Brooks, the son of assistant coach George Brooks, only to see him request a release in the spring and go to North Carolina instead.

Still, this is a team that returns most of its key contributors from last season, and all of them were freshmen or sophomores. And Ben Howland’s history suggests that his third year is when his program takes a step forward. It’s not really a question of whether Mississippi State will improve; it’s a question of how much.

Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 Nick Weatherspoon 6'2" Fr. #29 recruit
1 Lamar Peters 6'0" So. 10.7 ppg/3.4 apg
2 Eli Wright 6'4" So. 3.5 ppg/1.6 rpg
3 Xavian Stapleton 6'6" Jr. 7.1 ppg/2.9 rpg
10 Tate Clayton 6'2" Fr. walk-on
11 Quinndary Weatherspoon 6'4" Jr. 16.5 ppg/5.1 rpg
12 Drew Davis 5'10" Sr. walk-on
13 Nick Singleton 6'5" Jr. walk-on
15 T.J. Gray 6'0" So. walk-on
23 Tyson Carter 6'4" So. 7.5 ppg/1.7 rpg

It’s not clear how much better Mississippi State might have been last year if not for Quinndary Weatherspoon’s injured wrist.

The 6’4” junior averaged 22 ppg through the Bulldogs’ first three games last season. After injuring his wrist, he scored 9 points against UTEP. Then, Mississippi State announced Weatherspoon was done for the season, and he missed games against Lehigh (a Mississippi State loss) and Northwestern State, before deciding to play through the injury.

Even while playing through the injury, Weatherspoon averaged 16.5 ppg and six 20-point games, and after offseason wrist surgery might be even better. He showed good shooting form as a freshman (39.4 percent from three, 80.5 percent from the foul line) and while those numbers dropped a bit as a sophomore, he got better inside the arc. He’s a potential All-SEC talent.

Lamar Peters took over the starting point guard job in SEC play and looked like, well, a freshman. In SEC play, Peters averaged 11.8 ppg and 3.9 apg — and also averaged 2.9 turnovers a game, including an 8-turnover performance against Alabama and five more games with four or more turnovers.

He did fine shooting the ball from distance on the season (36.6 percent from three) but that number fell off considerably in SEC play (30.8 percent.) It says something about Peters’ potential that Howland mostly stuck with him when the Bulldogs had a more experienced hand (I.J. Ready, since graduated) available.

But this year, Peters will have to hold off Nick Weatherspoon — Quinndary’s younger brother. The 6’2” freshman was rated as a four-star recruit and is a strong, quick defender who can also get to the basket, though he doesn’t have his older brother’s jump shot. In any case, Mississippi State will no doubt have a point guard with some upside.

Starkville product Tyson Carter was another player who looked good early against weak competition before fading in SEC play. On the season, the 6’4” sophomore shot 36.1 percent from three, but that number dropped to 31.5 percent in conference play. That number will obviously need to go up: unlike Weatherspoon, Carter is a straight jump-shooter and not a complete scorer, so he’s not an SEC player if he’s shooting 31.5 percent from three.

6’6” junior Xavian Stapleton is more of a slasher on the wing; he shot 55.7 percent on twos and 27.5 percent on threes in SEC play. Having both Stapleton and Carter off the bench should allow Howland to play matchups and go with the hot hand.

Eli Wright very nearly transferred over the offseason but wound up back at Mississippi State. Though little-used as a freshman, the 6’4” sophomore made two-thirds of his (small number of) shots and could figure for playing time in a deep backcourt.

Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
5 Mitch Storm 6'7" So. walk-on
22 KeyShawn Feazell 6'8" Fr. #239 recruit
24 Abdul Ado 6'11" Fr. redshirted 2016-17
34 Schnider Herard 6'10" So. 5.1 ppg/5.0 rpg
35 Aric Holman 6'10" Jr. 8.4 ppg/6.0 rpg/2.0 bpg
45 E.J. Datcher 6'10" So. 1.0 ppg/1.5 rpg

Last year, Howland signed a pair of four-star freshmen up front in 6’11” Abdul Ado and 6’10” Schnider Herard, but Ado was ruled ineligible before the season and didn’t play. Herard did, and showed himself to be, well, about as raw as was initially thought. While Herard shot 60.9 percent from the floor in SEC play, he was quite turnover-prone and shot 49.5 percent from the foul line on the season. He looks like a good rebounder but isn’t much of a shot-blocker, notching just eight blocks all season.

That might work, just because Mississippi State might be able to play either Ado or 6’10” junior Aric Holman alongside him. Both Ado and Holman are more typical rim-protecting bigs; Holman blocked 2.0 shots per game last season and had the fourth-highest block rate in the SEC.

He also has a good step-back game at that size, though he shot just 24.5 percent on threes as a sophomore. Ado is raw, but he’s 6’11” with long arms and pretty athletic for that size. Look for Mississippi State to play Holman most minutes, but Ado will play 10-15 minutes a night off the bench.

E.J. Datcher, a 6’10” sophomore, was a late pickup in the 2016 class and played sparingly as a freshman, but he’s grown two inches since his senior year of high school and should at least be an extra body off the bench. So, too, should KeyShawn Feazell, an in-state three-star recruit whom Mississippi State landed after he decommitted from Iowa State. The 6’8” freshman is another body up front.

Schedule

Date Opponent
11/2 West Florida (exhibition)
11/10 Alabama State
11/18 Florida A&M
11/20 Green Bay
11/22 Stephen F. Austin
11/26 Jacksonville State
11/30 North Dakota State
12/3 Dayton
12/9 North Georgia
12/12 at Cincinnati
12/16 Tennessee-Martin
12/20 Little Rock
12/23 vs. Southern Miss (Jackson, MS)
12/30 North Florida
1/2 Arkansas
1/6 at Ole Miss
1/10 at Florida
1/13 Auburn
1/16 Vanderbilt
1/20 at Alabama
1/23 at Kentucky
1/27 Missouri
1/31 at South Carolina
2/3 Georgia
2/6 Alabama
2/10 at Missouri
2/14 at Vanderbilt
2/17 Ole Miss
2/20 at Texas A&M
2/24 South Carolina
2/27 Tennessee
3/3 at LSU

Mississippi State’s nonconference schedule is kind of a joke. The Bulldogs will play just one game outside the state of Mississippi — a December 12 trip to Cincinnati -- and aside from a visit from Dayton on December 3, these are all games in which Mississippi State should be favored. While there are a handful of teams that could be somewhat dangerous, this is the kind of schedule that will absolutely be an issue if Mississippi State is on the NCAA Tournament bubble in March.

The SEC schedule is a bit better -- I think Alabama, Ole Miss, Missouri, and Vanderbilt should be at least decent, and those four are all on the schedule twice. The fifth double opponent is South Carolina, who of course made the Final Four last year but could be taking a big step back this year. Among the single opponents, the most notable fact is that Kentucky, Florida, and Texas A&M are all road games. That might put something of a hard cap on the Bulldogs’ SEC record.

Outlook

To be blunt, I’d feel a lot better about Mississippi State if Kegler hadn’t left. If there’s a glaring hole on this team, it’s the lack of a wing who can slash to the basket. Xavian Stapleton can sort of do that, but, well, there’s a reason he started his career at Louisiana Tech.

But there’s a lot of potential everywhere else. Quinndary Weatherspoon is a good scorer, both off the dribble and from beyond the arc, and with a healthy wrist he could be an All-SEC player. Mississippi State could get good point guard play from either Lamar Peters or Nick Weatherspoon, and Tyson Carter has the potential to be a good shooter off the bench. Up front, the Bulldogs have the makings of a traditional back-to-the-basket big man in Schnider Herard, with a solid rim-protector at the four in Aric Holman, and another potential rim-protector off the bench in Abdul Ado.

In other words, this is Ben Howland in his third year. Howland has never been an immediate turnaround artist, but give him three years and he’ll give you really good results. Howland in 2005-06 had a team with a talented bunch of freshmen and sophomores, and the result was a Pac-10 title and a run all the way to the national title game.

This group probably isn’t on that level -- that team, after all, had five different players who have now appeared in at least 500 NBA game, while this Mississippi State team probably only has one player who’s a safe bet to make the league. But there are enough pieces on this team to have a record over .500 in the SEC, something that hasn’t happened at Mississippi State since 2011. And this group could lead to Mississippi State’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2009.

This seems like a lot of praise for a team that went just 16-16 and 6-12 in the SEC last year — but remember, that team was the second-least-experienced team in all of Division I. With this much returning, it’s really a question of how much better this team will be, not whether they’ll be better. At the very least, this team should finish around .500 in the SEC and be in the NCAA Tournament conversation well into February, and there’s enough upside to think they could do even better than that.

In short: Ben Howland knows what he’s doing, and we’ll see that this year.