Trio Of Friends Reunite To Lead Bulldog Soccer Into The Future

They’re a little too serious to be The Three Amigos, but not quite serious enough to be The Three Musketeers. Perhaps The Three Best Friends That Anyone Could Have is about as close an example as may easily come to mind.

Tom Anagnost at MSU soccer practice

Tom Anagnost at MSU soccer practice

Tom Anagnost is The Head Coach, capital letters intact, but all three of the men leading the charge to build Mississippi State’s soccer program into a national contender could be considered to have a similar title. They do, in fact, as Matt Kagan and Jason Hamilton are the Associate Head Coaches of the Bulldogs.

The trio first got together in south Florida when Anagnost was hired as the head coach of Miami’s soccer team. He quickly brought Kagan into the fold, having known him well from the recruiting trail and other previous interactions. Not long after arriving in Miami, they brought Hamilton in to help them run a camp for goalkeepers on the recommendation of another acquaintance, and they were so impressed with his work that they added him to the fold almost immediately.

Following the success he had as head coach at Central Michigan where he was two-time MAC Coach of the Year and led his team to two NCAA Tournaments, Anagnost had the Hurricanes in the NCAA Tournament in his very first year, and he and the new staff of assistants repeated the trick again in 2012, their second year with the program.

However, that season was fated to be their last in Coral Gables. But in their time together, the three had developed a strong bond of not just professional association, but as great friends. They kept up with each other almost daily, keeping a group message going over the years and deciding not long after leaving Florida that if ever one of them got a head coaching job at a major school again, the other two would come work for that person and the trio would be reunited.

“The plan was one of these guys get a big head job and then I just be their assistant,” Anagnost joked as the three sat in the coaches’ lounge of MSU’s team facility remembering the story that brought them together in Starkville.

Jason Hamilton coaching MSU goalies

Jason Hamilton coaching MSU goalies

Late in the fall of 2016, all three of the coaches were in Raleigh, North Carolina for a club soccer tournament. Anagnost was an assistant at North Carolina State and lived there, while Kagan was the associate head coach at Loyola Marymount and Hamilton was The Head Coach, capital letters, at Troy University. Hamilton, in addition to being a head coach, was also about to be a husband. And of course, Anagnost and Kagan were going to be a part of the festivities.

Their plan was to leave together from Raleigh after the tournament and head to the wedding, and that is what happened, but not before a little excitement got added to the situation. Early in the reunion, at the beginning of the tournament, news came that Anagnost was one of the top candidates for the open job at MSU. By Monday, a few days later, his status went from top candidate to preferred candidate. On Wednesday, the day they left for the wedding weekend, Anagnost was hired as Mississippi State’s new head coach.

“From Monday to Wednesday we were like, oh my gosh, please let it happen,” he recalled. “We were all together.”

For all the discussion they’d been having for over the last three years, all the hopes of getting back together and building a program into something great, now it was time for words to be followed by action. But there was one hiccup.

“We hadn’t told our wives,” the then husband-to-be Hamilton confessed.

“There was no way we were going to talk about it with his wife,” Kagan explained. “She’s got a wedding on her mind, let’s not throw that in the mix.”

They were quiet about things during the wedding weekend – Anagnost doing an excellent job of making calls to recruits, commits and current players while preparing to help one of his best friends get married – but with their dream in play, the three made quick work of things. On Saturday, Hamilton and his wife got married. On Sunday, everyone left town. By Tuesday, Anagnost was in Starkville. Kagan arrived on Thursday and Hamilton got to town on Friday. Finally, it was happening. They were together again.

Matt Kagan teaching the team during practice

Matt Kagan teaching the team during practice

Now, as they’ve begun their time at MSU, started practices and are ready to kick off their spring season this weekend, the three are reunited. Watching their practices, it’s easy to see how one might think MSU has three head coaches instead of just one. It’s even easier to see how a natural a trio they are, working together seamlessly without egos or frustrations. Each has their own strengths, their own areas of expertise they bring to the team.

Anagnost, who has had three assistants in his career go on to become head coaches at the D-I level, has shown an aptitude for making good hires and developing good coaches, allowing them to do what they do best.

“Who you hire is everything,” Anagnost said.

“Matt went to LMU and was good,” he continued. “They were 200 something, then they moved up to 50 and made the NCAA Tournament. A giant reason is because of Matt. I think Matt is one of the very best recruiters in the country, and he’s amazing with our players. He’s great at managing people. Plus, he’s one of my dearest friends.”

“[Jason] is an extraordinary goalkeeper coach,” Anagnost went on. “He’s tactically very advanced. Everything administratively, from a head coach perspective, he excels. Technologically, he’s off the charts. He’s just a do-er.”

Meanwhile, Anagnost himself is a more subdued observer, watching and thinking before acting and speaking, focusing on improvements in skill and stamina, as well as education and life experience.

“Tom teaches the game,” Hamilton said. “He teaches life to all of our players. They leave prepared for the real world. I think the best coaches in the world in all sports are also doing that for their staff. They’re challenging you.”

From here, the challenge begins. The three best friends have happily and enthusiastically taken on the challenge, each of them thoroughly convinced that something special can be done in Starkville, that Mississippi State can become a national contender.

Kagan and Hamilton acknowledge they left great jobs and situations to come together again, but all three of the new MSU coaches see the opportunity in Starkville as being even greater.

“We always said, if we could find a place where we thought we could be successful, we’d get back together,” Kagan said. “We’ve got great kids here. That’s first and foremost. We have an opportunity here to do something nobody’s ever done at Mississippi State.”

“You find me someone who doesn’t want to go to work and do what they love with two of their best friends,” Hamilton said, “then I’m going to call them a liar. Who wouldn’t want that? We’ve all left each other and been extremely successful. Now, you’re putting the three of us together in a room talking about one idea – it’s going to be hard for someone else to come up with a better idea.”

“You’ve got a school who’s got resources, got a facility,” Hamilton continued as he listed off the positives. “We’ve got everything you need to be successful. I don’t think it’ll take too long for us to get where we need to be.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Opening Weekend Comebacks At The Dude, As Witnessed From The Outfield

In the farthest right corner of the Left Field Lounge – just a few feet away from the right field foul pole, an area that would be called a Right Field Lounge anywhere else in the world – there is a space not containing any of the rigs that surround the rest of the outfield wall at Dudy Noble Field. It’s a public area free to be used by whomever, and for the last several years, one specific group has taken ownership of a piece of that deck sitting next to the visitor’s bullpen.

unnamed-1On Sunday afternoon, the crew made up largely of locals and others working in Starkville was surrounded by the usual portable patio furniture, meat-and-drink-stuffed coolers and charcoal-burning grills. Tables were lined with tenderloin, chicken wings and beef kabobs, trays of hot meat tucked in between bags of jalapeno, BBQ and sour cream and onion chips. It’s a world where Fritos and Pringles are considered vegetables. And hey, they’re made from corn and potatoes. It counts.

Smoke fills either your lungs or your line of sight, depending if you’re sitting upwind or down from the grill. It’s hard to tell when the hecklers switch from yelling at the opposing team to cracking jokes on each other along the fence, and whatever is being said over the public address is reduced to background noise barely audible over the impressively loud music coming from the small speaker connected to a phone.

And that’s where the story began on Sunday. Understandably lethargic after the first game of Mississippi State’s doubleheader went four-and-a-half hours long, the revelry and general rabble-rousing in this corner of The Lounge had been reduced to short comments on the quality of the kabobs – excellent, unsurprisingly – and speculation as to what may happen in the game.

In the first inning, the Bulldogs quickly found themselves down 4-0 to visiting Texas Tech, the No. 15 team in the country. As tired as the Loungers seemed to be after a marathon game one, the team felt the same. As a playlist of ‘80s pop music filled the dead air, ‘I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight’ ringing out over the group, the mood in the outfield matched the pace of play on the other side of the fence.

Finally, the gentleman manning the grill had had enough.

“Look,” he said, “I do not like ‘80s music.”

After a brief discussion, the decision was made to switch to a ‘90s hip-hop station on Pandora as the game hit the middle of the third inning.

“Tag Team back again,

Check its records let’s begin,

Party on party people let me hear some noise,

DC’s in the house jump, jump rejoice

There’s a party over here,

A party over there,

Wave your hands in the air,

Shake your derriere.”

unnamedThe energy in the lounge picked up immediately as the children of the ‘90s all sang along, and likewise, so did the action on the field. As DC The Brain Supreme and his man Steve Roll’n worked their way through the verses, MSU’s bats sparked into life, catching fire as soon as the inning began and ending up hotter than the coals in the outfield by the time the inning was finished.

The hits of both baseball and musical variety cycled through, ‘Regulate’ followed by a double, ‘Forgot About Dre’ leading to an RBI single, ‘Mo Money, Mo Problems’ only causing problems for the visiting Red Raiders.

“That’s it,” the grillmaster announced. “We have to stick with ‘90s hip-hop for the rest of the season.”

By the end of the inning, MSU had tied the game at 4-4, and then in the top of the fourth, TTU’s batters were set down in a quick and orderly fashion.

“I’m taking it back to the old school,

‘Cause I’m an old fool who’s so cool.

If you want to get down,

I’m gonna show you the way, whoomp there it is

Let me hear you say,”

The chorus in right field sang out for the entire stadium to hear as MSU took the lead in the bottom of the fourth with another two runs.

“Whoomp!

shak a laka shak a laka shak a laka shak a

Whoomp!

shak a laka shak a laka shak a laka shak a

Whoomp!

shak a laka shak a laka shak a laka shak a

Whoomp!”

As the fifth inning drew near with Outkast blaring for all to hear, the catcher in Tech’s bullpen yelled over the noise to ask what all the whoomping had been about during the last inning. It was about riding the momentum of the music, they replied. They were doin’ it for the Dawgs.

Despite the fact the stadium had been slowly emptying after a long day and many areas of the lounge had grown bare, the energy from right field seemed to overflow into the bleachers, the grandstands and right into the home dugout. The swagger with which they sang was displayed at the plate by Cody Brown who dropped the fiercest and most impressive of bat flips – after being walked.

The classic of hip-hop ‘I Got Five On It’ popped up in the rotation in, appropriately, the fifth inning. As the chorus shouted from the tiny speaker on the table, No. 5 for MSU, Brant Blaylock, squared his shoulders, planted his front foot and swung his hips as he jacked a home run over the outfield wall.

“Number five just hit a home run in the fifth inning with I Got Five On It playing!” someone shouted.

Five, it turned out, was definitely on it. The whole team was, as MSU went on to beat Texas Tech 8-5 on Sunday, securing a 3-1 record on opening weekend and an undefeated Sunday at The Dude.

“Awesome day, man,” first-year head coach Andy Cannizaro said in his first words to reporters after the game. “Awesome. What a full day out at the ballpark.”

All because of ‘90s hip-hop in the outfield. Or, maybe not. Who’s to say? Surely, the two events aren’t connected, not by most rules of logic. But it’s hard to ignore the coincidence.

“All I know,” one Lounger observed as the game drew to a close, Snoop Dogg in the background explaining his laid back state by means of rhyming verse, “is there’s nowhere you can have as much fun at a baseball game as Mississippi State.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MSU, Cannizaro Aiming For ‘Best Infield In The Country’

Experience is the best teacher, as it is said, but experience also makes the best teachers. As Mississippi State closes in on the start of its first season under new head coach Andy Cannizaro, it’s the experiences of his career that are helping to make him a talented teacher.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-11-09-16-amHis lessons already learned are particularly helpful for his infielders, as they are taught by someone who isn’t terribly far removed from his own playing days as a shortstop in the MLB. Cannizaro’s prowess in high school, college and the MLB led to a lengthy career as a baseball player, and now that he’s transitioned to baseball coach, the next generation of players is happily taking his cues.

Cannizaro shared the expected starting lineup for his team last week, and while a battle is ongoing at first, the initial crew for third, second and short appears to be set for the time being. That trio of athleticism-reliant positions – the infield arc, if you will – appears set to be an incredible strength for Cannizaro’s club, and thanks to his experiences, they’re a group with which he can be consistently hands-on.

Talking to the players involved, that’s exactly how they want it.

“It has helped a lot,” second baseman Hunter Stovall said. “We talk about first steps. We talk about foot placement. I caught all my life, really. It’s good to pick up and get a feel from somebody that’s been there, somebody that’s made it. It makes it a lot easier to listen to him, too, because you’re sitting here talking to an ex-major-leaguer.”

Stovall joins Ryan Gridley at shortstop and Luke Alexander at third base as the expected starters to begin the season, and between the three of them, they’ve developed not just chemistry, but extreme confidence. Those, along with others, routinely show up to practice early to get extra work in together on everything from the basics to acrobatics.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-11-02-50-amWhat makes them so confident, however, isn’t just the time spent practicing, but the combined talents of the group, as Stovall went on to explain.

“As a unit, we’re gonna turn a lot of double plays,” he said. “We’re going to be very fundamentally sound. The athleticism is unreal between us three. All three of us are going to make crazy plays. We communicate really well. Our chemistry in the infield is really good. I think we’re going to be very successful.”

Just how successful?

“We’ve talked with Coach Cannizaro a lot,” Stovall shared. “Our goal is to be the best infield in the nation this year.”

Indeed.

“A lot of confidence in the infield,” Gridley unabashedly confirmed. “I just want to continue to stress how much confidence we have going into the season.”

The confidence seems to be warranted, too. It’s certainly been evident in preseason scrimmages, when balls hit low or on the ground have an extremely low survival rate in the infield, very rarely reaching the grasses of the outfield. The athleticism of that infield arc has effectively put up a low wall around the infield where anything not hit high or hard enough is immediately snagged and quickly dumped to first base where the duo of Cody Brown and Cole Gordon have provided consistent gloves.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-11-05-13-amIn fact, the confidence in the group is so high that many of MSU’s pitchers have even worked on getting more sink in their pitches, trusting in their infield to cash in on the groundouts and double plays.

“I feel really good about our infield right now,” Cannizaro said. “I think we have three guys that have the ability to play shortstop. Anytime that you have that, you feel great. As a coach, you feel great because you know they’re going to pick the ball up and throw the runner out. That’s one of the biggest things that we talk about every day.”

As for the individuals making up the infield, Cannizaro shared a breakdown of each, and it’s Gridley, the junior and veteran, who he is counting on for leadership and who he expects to have a breakout season.

“Ryan Gridley has been sensational,” Cannizaro said. “I was really impressed with Ryan last year when I was at LSU and we played Mississippi State. He’s a guy that can really defend at a high level. He has leadership ability. He’s a consistent defender and very accurate throwing the ball. He keeps on getting better and better. I’m really convinced that Ryan Gridley is going to be one of the surprise baseball players of the SEC this year. He’s got range and he comes and gets the baseball as well as any college baseball player I’ve ever seen.”

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-11-03-51-amAt third base, it’s the man who was competing with Gridley at shortstop – the sophomore Alexander – who appears set to take over the starting job.

“He defends at a really high level for us, as well,” Cannizaro said. “He’s new to the position over at third base, but already in the first week and a half he’s made plays that I don’t think anyone else on our team was capable of doing.”

Meanwhile, at second base, Cannizaro has yet another young player with breakout potential in the sophomore Stovall.

“Hunter is a grinder and a gritty player,” Cannizaro said. “He loves to play the game. He’s the first guy on the field every day and the last guy to leave. I think he’s kind of a table setter type guy that can bunt, run and play the short game. Reminds me a lot of the guy we had playing second base last year at LSU, Cole Freeman who was an All-SEC player last year. I think Hunter Stovall could be that type of player for us. He’s only a sophomore so I think the more playing time Hunter gets, the better he’s going to get. He’s a really high-energy type of guy. He brings a really good presence to the field for us.”

It’s that first-to-arrive, last-to-leave mentality that’s helped shape not just Stovall, but the entire infield as a whole. Their key word has been opportunity. Extra time before practice is an opportunity to improve. The practices themselves are opportunities to simulate games.

Even batting practice before games, Stovall shared, is an opportunity to make themselves better.

“I believe if you’re gonna stand out there during BP, you can’t just let balls go that you would normally go to in a game,” he said. “I love preparing myself for every moment that can happen in a game. So if there’s a ball I need to dive for – I mean, you ain’t gonna make the play in the game if you ain’t done it.”

“Every day,” Alexander confirmed, “we’re out there doing early work just competing with each other and trying to make each other better.”

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-11-10-05-amAs Cannizaro made sure to emphasize, nothing is set in stone. Competition remains at every position on the field, and no one is guaranteed to keep their starting spot. On a team with a great deal of young talent, anybody could make a jump at any time. There are always surprise players in college baseball, and MSU is sure to have one or a few of its own.

But even if the names change, the confidence in the infield is the same. They not only want to be the best, but they expect to be the best. Starting this weekend, they get their chance to prove it.

“We have to live up to it,” Stovall said. “That motivates us because we know that we are really good and that we have to prove it to people and prove it to ourselves. It makes it fun, makes it challenging.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Love And Basketball At MSU With Forwards Aric Holman And Ketara Chapel

Being 6’11” makes a lot of things difficult. Walking through doorways, driving cars, buying clothes. Being in college only presents more challenges for a young man trying to sit comfortably in a classroom desk built for people a foot shorter or trying to find a dorm room bed where his legs don’t stick out of the end like a baguette in a grocery sack.

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-6-07-53-pmFor Aric Holman, now a sophomore on Mississippi State’s basketball team, the problems didn’t end there. As he continued to out-grow his classmates over the years, Holman neared the end of high school in Owensboro, Kentucky, convinced there was going to forever be one more complication from his great height: dating.

“Where I came from, anywhere in Kentucky, you didn’t see any tall girls,” he said. “Like, 5’10”, maybe.”

Then he got to college, where his men’s team at MSU shared a court with one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country. There, he discovered members of the opposite sex who, if they couldn’t quite look him straight in the eye, could at least get pretty close.

“I wasn’t expecting to see girls as tall as them,” Holman said. “You’re like, OK, now maybe I’ve got a chance.”

“A chance” might be the best way to describe it. A small chance. A minimal chance. More of a pipe dream, really, to hear the story from Ketara Chapel, the 6’1” senior forward who had no intentions of dating anyone at all, let alone a basketball player, during her time at MSU.

“I didn’t want to date anybody,” she said. “I don’t have time for a relationship.”

Or so she thought, anyway. Chapel and Holman have now been together for more than one year.

“Everybody that had tried to talk to me, I was like, noooo, I’m not gonna talk to you,” Chapel said of her first couple years on campus. “I’d turn them down. But I don’t know, there was something special about Aric.”

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-6-13-40-pmHolman knew her reputation, knew her lack of interest in dating as she focused on school and basketball. But after he met her, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. And considering their two teams were sharing the same facilities day-in and day-out, it was hard not to run into each other on a pretty regular basis. In fact, as one might expect, that’s exactly how they had met in the first place.

In the summer of 2015, Holman was a quiet freshman, brand new to Starkville and ready for his first season of college basketball. Having just arrived, Holman didn’t have many friends yet as he sat on a training table deep in the bowels of Humphrey Coliseum and watched two of his older teammates joke around with a tall girl from the women’s team who Holman had to admit was pretty cute. Then, for some reason, she came over and talked to him.

Perhaps to reiterate the distance she was keeping between herself and the two seniors talking to her, she stepped aside and told them she wanted to talk to her friend Aric – her “friend” who she had never met.

“I was like, hold up, you don’t even know me, why are you coming at me like that,” Holman remembered, teasing Chapel as he relayed the story.

“I just needed somebody to talk to,” she was quick to explain.

Chapel and Holman at Maroon Madness, the preseason basketball pep rally for both teams

Chapel and Holman at Maroon Madness, the preseason basketball pep rally for both teams

That, however, was in July, and the two didn’t go on their first date until after Christmas break that year. Even if Holman was a welcomed sight for that moment in the training room, Chapel still had no interest in dating him or anyone, despite Holman’s piqued interest from that first conversation. Each attempt at approaching her after that day seemed like wasted effort, a fact his teammates were quick to point out.

“Every time they saw me talking to her, they were like, ‘It’s over, don’t even try, bruh. She’s not gonna talk to you.’”

Luckily, Chapel’s teammates were a bit more supportive. Despite her initial wariness, she was convinced to let down her guard when a pair of her teammates vouched for the tall freshman.

“They said, ‘Give him a chance, he’s a sweet guy, he’s not like everyone else and all the other boys,’” she recalled. “So, I gave him a chance.”

Fortunately for them both, her teammates were right, and his were quite wrong. All that’s happened since – days spent watching movies together and nights full of watching each other’s games – is a matter of history, and all that’s left to come is property of a promising future. What’s important to them both is that, against great odds, they found each other and that each saw something in the other they considered quite special indeed.

“There’s a lot,” Holman said, trying to explain what it is he like so much about Chapel, “but I would say the main thing is how independent she is. She doesn’t have to depend on me for me anything. She can get stuff done on her own. I really respect that about her.”

“How sweet he is,” Chapel said, turning to look at Holman as she answered the same question. “He’s kind. Even though he doesn’t talk that much – like, I have to initiate every conversation – but he’s a real gentleman. He makes me laugh.”

And yes, despite his tendency to remain tight-lipped, Chapel has managed to open up the otherwise quiet Holman.

“When I talk to her,” he said, “I can talk to her about anything.”

Being 6’11” has its challenges, sure. But it isn’t always so bad.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

On The Recruitment And Commitment Of New MSU RB Kylin Hill

Now the highest-rated running back the school has signed in over a decade, Kylin Hill’s first brushes with Mississippi State football came years ago. The Columbus, Mississippi, native was just a little kid when he first started cheering for the Bulldogs, the dream of being a football player dancing through his young mind, even if it didn’t seem truly possible.

nsd17_hillAs Hill’s body grew, so too did his passion for football. By the time he reached high school, what was once just the daydream of a child had become a near certain reality – Kylin Hill was going to be one of the chosen few who are able take the big stage in college football. The eventual question of where would he play was preceded by what now seems like a silly one: who would want him to come play for them?

Hill could have signed just about anywhere in the country today, if he had wanted to, but the summer before his 10th grade year at Columbus High School, his name was still decidedly under the radar compared to the attention he has garnered since. In an effort to earn the respect that was soon to come, Hill went to a camp at MSU to show what talents he had. It was there that State’s coaches got their first up-close look at him.

“At that point we knew,” MSU running backs coach Greg Knox said. “We wanted him. He was going to be special.”

From there, Hill’s career exploded. The talented running back quickly worked his way onto the field, and as his role grew, the attention he received from media and colleges alike multiplied exponentially. In his last two years of school, Hill racked up 3,493 yards and 42 touchdowns on the ground, complemented by his 610 receiving yards and four touchdowns.

By the time his senior year was over, Hill was a four-star running back with offers to go any area of the country he liked, everywhere from LSU, Florida and Alabama to Ole Miss, Oregon State and Tennessee. Not that it was hard to predict, but MSU’s coaches were proven right after their evaluation so many years before.

“As he grew from that year and you continued to watch him, he got better and better,” Knox said. “His body started to change. He got stronger. Now he’s a more powerful runner. Still has great footwork, great vision. He’s very explosive, now, going from the point we first saw him to now in his career. A very explosive runner.”

That explained why MSU wanted him, of course. Meanwhile, Hill wisely took his time in deciding where he wanted to go, but what seemed like destiny became reality for the little kid from Columbus when he signed on to play for MSU.

Before he could make that choice, however, he needed to learn more than just the school colors and what little history he knew from growing up in the Golden Triangle. When Hill’s recruitment began, he had the opportunity to open the back panel and see how the Mississippi State machine worked.

Beyond comfort level with the city, the campus and the people, two things that helped MSU recruit Hill were found in their proven ability to develop true student-athletes. State’s track record of 1) players graduating and 2) players going on to the NFL were hard to ignore.

“I think it helps in recruiting for kids to see what you’ve done with the production of your program,” Knox said. “You’re producing NFL players. You’re helping them develop into what they want to be – NFL players. You’re giving them that opportunity to develop themselves and possibly go on and play at a higher level. In the whole big picture, they’re getting a degree out of it. That’s the main thing. But they see your program, they look at the inside of it, they see how you’re developing kids and giving them a shot at the next level.”

Today, when Hill signed his letter of intent and faxed it to MSU’s football office, it was the end of one journey and the beginning of another. And while it may have taken a while, the realization of the childhood dream should’ve been obvious from the start.

“He always said this was childhood favorite. This was where he wanted to come,” Knox said. “He’s Maroon and White, and we’re happy about that.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

MSU’s ‘Invisible Star’ Abdul Ado Quietly Changes His Team

For years, astronomers were baffled by dark spots in the night sky. I mean, sure, most of the night sky is dark by nature, what with the sun being on the other side of the Earth. But as telescopes grew from basic to big, those studying the movements of the stars started to notice the same occasional phenomena.

Where there should be a star, there sometimes wasn’t. As they tracked the movements of the objects nearby, astronomers were sure that some massive body at the center of it all was affecting the pieces around it, but nothing showed up on their telescopes. They didn’t know what was going on with these invisible stars.

Turns out, as is often the case in scientific discovery, they just didn’t have enough information. More specifically, they didn’t know how to look at the stars. Over time, astronomers learned that stars emit different types of light based on their temperature, and some stars shine light that the human eye doesn’t naturally see.

Sometimes, you don’t have to look harder; you just have to look a little differently to see what’s going on.

083016_mbk_headshots_ado_kp001Back on Earth, here in Starkville, Mississippi, Ben Howland’s Mississippi State basketball team has an invisible star of its own. You can’t see it on the court. You can’t see it in the stat sheet. You can’t even see a picture of it – not a game picture, anyway.

But if you look with a different lens, you can clearly see the presence of Abdul Ado by the way he affects the players around him. The 6’11” freshman forward from Tennessee, by way of being born in Nigeria, is sitting out this season due to issues with his transcripts, but that hasn’t stopped him from having an impact on his team.

After acing his classes with a 4.0 GPA in the fall, Ado was allowed to start practicing with the team in December. It’s no coincidence that Howland thinks the practices have improved in quality since that time.

“It’s made our team better,” he said.

Ado has made that impact through a few different avenues. Surely, his great size and talent are a big part of it, providing his teammates with capable competition in practice. But his attitude and approach, those around him say, are what set him apart.

“The thing that’s special about him is he’s such a great competitor,” Howland said. “Ask our players. Please, ask our guys.”

If you insist.

“He just brings it every day,” freshman Mario Kegler confirmed when asked. “He’s different. He has a motor every day. He comes to practice ready to play.”

Consider the claim now peer-reviewed.

“I mean,” Howland finished, “it’s ridiculous how hard he plays.”

As Ado got more and more into the swing of things after returning to the floor, his role in practice increased. By the time MSU reached SEC play, the freshman was helping to simulate State’s opponents as well as he could, and it was working. The Bulldogs went on a three-game win streak in early January, and behind it all, Ado was in practice helping his team prepare. Even when MSU lost to Kentucky last week, they did so in impressive fashion, playing far better against one of the country’s biggest and most talented teams.

Then, in practice between that mid-week game and the following Saturday’s match-up on the road at Tennessee, Howland let Ado rest. The freshman wasn’t a part of the preparation as they practiced how to defend and attack the Vols.

On Saturday, MSU played perhaps its worst game of the year and ended up losing to Tennessee 91-74, largely because of a lack of defensive effort and intensity.

“I made a mistake,” Howland told reporters before practice the following Monday, “and I can’t ever do that again for the rest of the year … Today, he’s not coming out. Someone’s gonna have to deal with him all day long. That makes you better.”

screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-10-42-49-amThat afternoon, Howland put his team through one of the toughest practices of the season, with Ado literally at the center of it. On Wednesday, MSU blew out SEC foe Missouri 89-74 in The Hump, based largely on a defensive intensity reminiscent of State’s three-game win streak.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, but it’s fair to say that, once again, Ado’s invisible presence was felt.

“He never comes out now,” Howland said after Wednesday night’s win. “You’re not coming out. Our fives are gonna have to deal with him. When we’re going through their stuff, preparing for another team, he’s always on offense. When we’re working on our stuff offensively, he’s always on defense. He just makes it really hard. He makes everybody better out there.”

It’s not a principle that’s new to Howland, of course. He’s seen it happen time and again in his long and successful coaching career, and it was one of the most important factors in his Final Four appearances.

Howland watched current NBA All-Star and one-time UCLA freshman Russell Westbrook improve on a daily basis by going against Aaron Afflalo and Darren Collison in practice, two outstanding professional players in their own right. He saw the same for Collison in school when he had to face Jordan Farmar in practice, a future NBA Champion with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“The best players I’ve coached, the best teams I’ve had, are when guys are really competing against each other and really trying to take it at each other between those lines,” Howland said. “You’re talking about players over the years competing against one another. That’s how you get better. That’s what we’ve gotta have every day out there. That’s why getting Abdul back in practice [is so important].”

Iron, as it is said, sharpens iron.

Ado won’t get a chance to show his mettle in a game until next season, but he’s already considered the best rebounder on the team, the most physical presence in the paint and one of the most important pieces of what Howland is building in Starkville. He can score, he can defend, he can block and he can rebound. Most importantly, he competes, and even from behind the scenes, he makes his team better.

Invisible stars can be seen. You just have to know how to look for them.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Lifetime Of Struggle, Opportunity Guide Schnider Herard’s Path To College Basketball

Fifteen years old, standing six feet and nine inches tall, Schnider Herard stepped off his airplane and onto American ground for the first time. The Haitian teenager was wearing dress pants, an old jacket and older shoes. At the luggage pickup in the Dallas airport, he waited for a suitcase holding all the belongings he had left to his name: an extra pair of socks and underwear.

Moments after retrieving the suitcase, two men approached him.

“Schnider?” one of them asked.

Herard nodded his head. He didn’t speak English, but the nervous nod was a sufficient reply. Yes, he was Schnider.

He followed the two men to their car as they tried to talk to him, each attempt as fruitless as the last. Once on the road, they used an iPhone to try some translations, first in French, then in Creole. Again, despite their best efforts, communication seemed impossible. Not sure what else to do, they decided they’d figure something out when they got home and just turned on the radio.

“Justin Bieber?” Herard asked.

Caught by surprise, both men turned to look, and found the beanpole teenager smiling. He didn’t speak the language, but Herard knew American music.

“Those were the first words he said to me,” Derrick Shelby now recalls with a laugh. “’Justin Bieber’ … Music opened him up. I remember that day like it was yesterday.”

screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-10-05-30-amShelby, now Herard’s legal guardian, is the Director of Sales for the IT firm Zigatta in Frisco, Texas. The man once at a loss for how to communicate with the tall kid from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, ended up with a surrogate son because of a passion for basketball and a devotion to his faith.

Shortly after an earthquake of enormous magnitude rocked the island country in 2010, Shelby met a Haitian man named Pierre – a former basketball player at a small college in Tennessee – who was using basketball as a way to reach out and help the less fortunate youth of his home country.

After they met, Shelby began donating shoes, clothes and basketball uniforms he had through his work with youth basketball in the Dallas area so they could be provided to kids in Haiti through the man’s mission service. In 2012, the benefactor was asked to take his kindness a step further. Several steps further.

“Would you like to sponsor a kid?” he was asked.

“That’s what I’m doing, isn’t it?” Shelby replied. “I’m sending all this stuff over, I’m sponsoring all of them.”

No, Pierre told him. This request was a bit more involved. Shelby was being asked to have one of those kids come live with he and his family in Dallas.

“I said, man, are you crazy? My wife will kill me.”

But then Pierre told Shelby about Herard. He told Shelby what a good kid Herard was, and expressed that this could be a chance to very literally save Herard’s life. Living in the worst neighborhood of what was one of the most dangerous cities in the world, if Herard didn’t get out then, he never would. And if he did get out, he had a chance to make something of the opportunity; a chance to change his own life and those of his family’s.

Herard, far left, at high school prom

Herard, far left, at senior prom

Eventually, Shelby was convinced, and on August 6, 2012, he and his friend George drove to the airport in Dallas to meet Herard and take him to his new home. Much like that first day, the ensuing months and even years were hard, both for Herard and for the Shelby family. But the decision led to the most rewarding experience any involved would ever have.

When Herard started his ninth grade year at McKinney Boyd High School that fall, he was reading English at what equated to roughly a third-to-fourth-grade level. His native tongue was excellent, of course, and he very easily earned the French Award later in high school, but he was up against considerable odds in an English-speaking world. As a sophomore, Herard transferred to Prestonwood Christian Academy, a move that went on to become an important piece of his growth as a student, as a man and in his Christian faith as he found his way in his new home and country.

For three years, in addition to going to school all day, Herard went to tutoring four nights a week where he intensively studied the English language and made attempts to master his courses in school. He studied even more at home. Piece by piece, week by week, improvements came. Before long, he was unrecognizable in appearance, speech and confidence from the fifteen-year-old who first stepped off the plane in 2012.

Shelby has rarely been prouder than the day in 2016 when he watched Herard walk across the stage and get his diploma, graduating high school with a 3.1 GPA just four years after arriving in America with no more knowledge of the English language than a couple Justin Bieber and Chris Brown lyrics.

“I’m still in contact with my ESL teacher from freshman year,” Herard says now. “She was great. She helped me so much.”

“He worked,” Shelby said. “He put the work in. He really did. It’s paid off for him, because he now has a chance to get his education at a phenomenal college and make a difference. A lot of family and friends have poured into Schnider and we are so proud of the young man that he has become.”

The college education Herard is able to receive now comes largely because, in addition to learning math, science and English in Texas, Herard also learned about the game of basketball. As a kid in Haiti, soccer was, like that of most other kids, his athletic event of choice. Herard still calls soccer his love (and he and Shelby’s son have spent hours battling on the TV screen in FIFA), but the environment of his new home in Dallas helped lead him to a new sport.

screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-10-07-01-amFilling out the group of five in their house, Shelby’s wife Fannie and their now-13-year-old son Noah were joined by not just one but two adoptive members of the family, as Herard was soon followed by another Haitian also in need of an opportunity – current Vanderbilt redshirt freshman forward Djery Baptiste.

Shelby, who coaches basketball in his spare time with a Nike EYBL program called Pro Skills, was the perfect fit for the two gigantic teenagers in need of an outlet and a way to get involved in the culture and community.

In ninth grade, Herard played his first season of organized basketball. Those first months, Herard confesses, he was pretty bad. But having grown to 6’10” by the following summer, the potential was very clearly there, and in fact, it was in the months after his freshman year that Herard got his first scholarship offer. It was from Mississippi State.

By the time Herard was ready to make a decision a few years later on where to go to school, not only had MSU hired an entirely new coaching staff, but the teenager from Port-au-Prince had become a three-time first-team all-state forward, won three state championships, scored 1,000 points and been on the receiving end of 34 more scholarship offers after being named a four-star recruit and one of the best 100 players in the country. His collegiate options were many, but ultimately, the first school to offer Herard was the last choice he made. He wanted to be a Bulldog.

“Credit to Mississippi State, no college wanted him more or worked harder than Mississippi State,” Shelby said. “Nobody worked harder than [assistant coach] Ernie Ziegler and [head coach] Ben Howland. We’ve been there now half a year, and every single thing that Ben Howland and Ernie Ziegler told me they were going to do for that kid, they have done. And believe me, that doesn’t always happen. Everything they’ve told me has come true.”

Now, Herard is a starting forward in the SEC. This summer, he flew to Italy for two weeks as MSU went on a four-game preseason tour and he walked the streets of Florence and Rome and the Vatican City signing autographs and posing for pictures.

All of this happening for someone who shouldn’t even be here. And Herard isn’t one of those people who “shouldn’t be” somewhere because they once almost dropped out of school, or got caught stealing candy bars, or just weren’t a highly-recruited prospect. No, Herard really shouldn’t be here. Or anywhere, for that matter.

Herard in 2015 with his aunt, sister and cousin, reunited in the U.S. for the first time in years

Herard in 2015 with his aunt, sister and cousin, reunited in the U.S. for the first time in years

Daily life was hard by the time he was a teenager, but things were a easier for at least a little while when he was a young kid, spending the school year with his dad and then going to live with his mom in the summers. Even now, Herard still considers himself a mama’s boy. But one morning during the school year in 2007, when Herard was 10, he woke up to the news that around midnight his pregnant mother had unexpectedly gone into labor. Her home was a long distance from the nearest hospital, and by the time she had arrived, it was too late. She died giving birth at the age of 34.

“That’s the reason why I chose the number 34 for my jersey,” Herard said. “I was really close to her. I always felt comfortable when I was around her. I always wanted to spend more time with her.”

Left without his mother at such a young age, Herard’s aunt and grandmother stepped in to raise him.

In 2010, not just his life was disrupted, but the earth itself was ripped apart. On January 12, a catastrophic earthquake that the country is still recovering from rocked Haiti, its epicenter located 15 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

As the ground stopped shaking, all Herard saw was smoke. All he heard were screams. When the dust settled and he could survey the damage, he discovered that his neighborhood had been demolished. Herard’s world had very literally crumbled around him as nearly every single building around had collapsed – all except the one he was in.

Dazed, Herard left the building and began the search not for answers to what had happened, but for the location and safety of his family members. Miraculously, they were unharmed and were able to find each other on the upended streets strewn with rubble, injured survivors, and the bodies of those not fortunate enough to survive.

Tragedy and hardship had once again left their marks on Herard’s life.

So, when other freshmen across America grew frustrated in their struggles to find their way onto the court in college this year, Herard – the only member of his family to go to college – didn’t think for a moment about joining them. When he was finally inserted into the starting lineup at MSU two weeks ago, Herard was proud not just of his ability, but of his survival.

“That was awesome to see myself in the lineup. That means so much,” Herard said. “But coming off the bench, I’m cool with that, too. Four or five years before that, I was never thinking I’d be here. Even if I was the 10th man on the team, I’d still be fine. I’m truly blessed to be here.”

Of course, Herard becoming the 10th man any time soon is unlikely. Dropping around 40 pounds since he got to campus in June (his weight in high school grew quickly when he discovered fast food, burritos and pizza), Herard is playing at a trim-for-his-size 240 pounds and has become a breakout player for the Bulldogs.

“He’s really done a good job since his arrival back in June,” Howland said. “It’s such a huge jump. It’s him learning to play … When you don’t grow up playing in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grade, you don’t have those experiences with basketball. It’s tougher. You’ve got a lot to learn, but you’re still working on stuff that other kids already know. But on the flipside, the ceiling for kids like that is sometimes a lot higher because of that fact.”

screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-10-05-04-amTo reach that ceiling, Herard is once again putting in extra time. Just as his daily tutoring sessions in high school helped him with classes, his extra cardio in the early mornings and unending free throws in the late afternoon have helped him blossom into one of the SEC’s best young forwards.

The breakout moment came last Saturday when Herard’s 16 points, four rebounds, 6-of-8 free throw shooting and disrupting presence in the paint helped lift MSU to one of its biggest wins of the season, upsetting Texas A&M in Starkville.

“Schnider is playing great,” senior point guard I.J. Ready said. “I think the game is slowing down for him. And of course, we’re feeding him and have a lot of confidence in him. When the time came, he responded very well.”

Responding well has been a habit of Herard’s.

If his progress continues, Herard’s career is likely not only to blossom at MSU, but to grow into a professional future with resources and luxuries he could hardly have dreamed of as a kid. But even if that doesn’t happen, even if he never touches a basketball again, Herard has already accomplished the near-impossible, has already survived disaster and has already emerged from the rubble with the strength to succeed and the heart to enjoy and appreciate the life he’s been given.

“Basketball can come and go,” Shelby said, “and no matter what, that’s my son. Basketball is temporary. But he’s going to get an education that can not just change his life, but change his family’s life over in Haiti.”

Very certainly, Schnider Herard’s life has already changed a very great deal in a very short time. His unexpected chance has opened the door to even more unexpected opportunities in his new world.

“So far, so good,” Herard said with a smile.

Pretty good, indeed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

New Look Lineup Paying Off For Howland

So, things happened kind of fast for Ben Howland. On January 3, his team opened SEC play by losing by 10 points to Alabama at home. Then, in a span of three days, his Mississippi State team scored 179 points in two games, beating LSU and Arkansas both on the road by a combined 23 points. One week, January 3-10, separated the beginning and end of that three-game stretch, but to watch them play, it‘s as if years have gone by. Or months, at least.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-33-40-amCredit the players for their resiliency and talent, then credit Howland for avoiding the stubbornness that can often plague head coaches in any sport. Over the course of a couple practices, Howland totally revamped his starting lineup, leading to a six-day turnaround for his Bulldogs.

Of course, it’s the same roster Howland had in that first game against Alabama, but changes in how he used that roster paid off very quickly. Now, MSU did well in the non-conference schedule, finishing that portion of the year with a 9-3 record. Things weren’t going poorly. But a new lineup helped move the needle a lot closer to the “great” end.

When MSU took the floor against LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday, the senior point guard wasn’t in the lineup. Neither was the team’s sharpshooting freshman guard. Nor, either, was the recently-returned sophomore guard who had earned a start in just his second game back.

The starting five were, 1-5, freshman point guard Lamar Peters, sophomore guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (of course), freshman guard/forward Mario Kegler (who had been at the four), sophomore forward Aric Holman (who had been at the five) and freshman forward Schnider Herard.

Or, to put it in different terms, they were 6’0”, 6’4”, 6’7”, 6’10” and 6’10”.

“I just thought, in terms of our size, it would get us off to hopefully a better start on the backboards, which has been an Achilles heel all season,” Howland later said.

And it did work. It worked well, as a matter of fact.

“It was easier to rebound,” Holman confirmed.

Said Howland, “It helps us to be bigger, especially at the onset of games when we’re trying to establish ourselves rebounding.”

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-34-15-amThe benefits have extended beyond rebounding, though. That lineup has been troublesome for opponents and advantageous for MSU, but it’s not just the length. As Howland pointed out to reporters, it puts every player at their natural position. Holman is a tall guy, but he’s more suited to play the four, where his athleticism and shooting ability can be highlighted on offense and his shot blocking ability can be best utilized on defense. Kegler, too, is a sizable human, but his talent is more naturally suited to the three, where his ball skills both on the dribble and as a passer can be used with more frequency.

Then the quick-footed Peters and the gigantic-footed Herard complement each other well at the one and five, respectively. Weatherspoon, of course, seems to be good no matter where he plays on the floor, but the two guard is his preferred locale.

“It helps to play Aric, Mario and Q all at their natural positions,” Howland said.

What it also helps are the options for substitutions off the bench. Senior point guard I.J. Ready took the change in stride (“At this point, I just want to win,” he said), and it’s his reliability that helps tie this whole thing together. With such a young lineup on the floor, Ready is the man who can come in to help get the game going in the right direction if things start to falter. And, as Howland likes to do, Ready can be on the floor at the same time as Peters, helping transition the lineup from long and strong to quick and dangerous with the blow of a whistle.

With the right subs, Howland can adjust to just about any moment. Need leadership to pull things back together, or a reliable late-game ball handler and free throw shooter? Send in Ready. Need a spark behind the arc or on the offensive glass? Enter the sharpshooting freshman Tyson Carter. Need some energy and athleticism? Xavian Stapleton. Hard minutes in the paint? E.J. Datcher.

And so on and so forth; Howland, in a rather short period of time, has set himself up to have an answer for just about everything.

“Coach Howland does a great job subbing and utilizing all his weapons at the right time,” Ready said. “The lineup we started off with [against LSU] was great.”

MSU is still a young team, certainly, and their lack of depth in some positions remains a concern for Howland. However, this group has grown up fast. It’s rare to have a new-look team in the middle of the season, but the Bulldogs have pulled it off.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Talent, Development Shine For Schaefer’s No. 5 Bulldogs

This is the best team Vic Schaefer has had at Mississippi State, and sitting at 15-0 after blowing out 11-3 LSU to start SEC play, this might also be the best coaching job of his five years in Starkville. His Bulldogs are No. 5 in the country, and that ranking may very well get even better when the new polls come out this week.

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-10-53-41-amWhat’s impressive about the job he’s done to this point – beyond the tough non-conference slate, the big numbers and, you know, the undefeated record – is that he’s done so with virtually the same roster he had last year. Coming into the season, fresh off an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, the 2016-17 campaign set up to be far more about development than addition.

After several years of addition by, well, addition, the stars of this year’s team are the same stars of last year’s team. The only difference is that they’re 12 months older. It’s in those 12 months that Schaefer did his work, and he continues to do so as the train of this season gains more and more steam.

The obvious answer to “What makes MSU good?” is the talent. All-SEC players like Victoria Vivians, Morgan William and Dominique Dillingham are certainly vital. Having 6’7” Teaira McCowan and 6’5” Chinwe Okorie in the post goes a long way, too. Literally.

But the little things are what have moved the needle from good to great for this top-five squad. Development is in the little things. Okorie and Vivians, who combined for 41 points and 18 rebounds against LSU Sunday, are perfect examples. Both have natural talents and abilities, certainly, but honing those skills has been of immense value.

Okorie, now a senior, has always been one of the most physically intimidating players on MSU’s roster, and while she’s certainly had a successful career, her ceiling was never quite reached earlier in her time at State.

“I have to answer when I’m on the Bulldog tour, ‘Hey, how’s your big girl? Is she gonna be able to make a layup this year?’ Schaefer shared, only half-jokingly.

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-10-56-03-amNow, it turns out, she can. Okorie, who also leads the team in rebounds, is shooting over 60 percent from the field and is one of only three players on the team averaging double-figures scoring. Beside her in the post, McCowan has made strides from freshman year to sophomore, learning how to use her body on both ends of the floor.

The development in the frontcourt has made for a nice pairing with the junior point guard William, the team’s floor general and second-leading scorer.

“Those are the bookends to our success,” Schaefer said. “The development of our bigs inside really makes it nice for our guard play, no question about it.”

For Vivians, the big step has been growing into her abilities. She’s athletic, she can shoot and she’s got length. That much got her pretty far. But now, she’s perfecting the finer points of the game.

She’s learned how to properly select and get set for shots.

“With Tori, it’s just a matter of her feet,” Schaefer said. “Tori didn’t take a bad shot today. She was on balance.”

She’s learned to see the floor on things as seemingly little as an in-bounds pass.

“We worked on that for 10 minutes in shootaround,” Schaefer shared.

She’s setting strong screens, she’s perfecting her timing on when to make cuts, and most importantly – this is the big one – she’s become passionate on defense.

“You can tell on the defensive end, it means something to her,” Schaefer finished. “I think that’s the difference on our team right now, that she’s really dialed in on both ends.“

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-10-54-36-amVivians is second on the team in steals (24), first in rebounds by guards (4.2 per game) and third in assists with a total 24. On that offensive side, Vivians’s 217 shots are more than double the next closest on the team, and only one other player (Okorie) has even attempted 100. Impressively given the volume of attempts, Vivians is shooting 43.3 percent, averaging 16.7 points per game.

Each game is just another display of her developed talents. Against LSU, for example, Vivians totaled 24 points, 12 rebounds and three steals as she led her team to a blowout 74-48 victory.

“That’s how an All-American is supposed to play,” Schaefer said with a smile afterward.

The final piece to MSU’s success has been, to make it simple, everybody else on the team not already mentioned. It’s been Roshunda Johnson, who stepped up in the place of the injured Dillingham for a stretch in December and is now the team’s fourth-leading scorer.

It’s backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes having just two fewer assists (57) than the starter (59, William), despite playing roughly half as many minutes. It’s Blair Schaefer playing some of the toughest minutes on the team. It’s Breanna Richardson’s wily veteran ways in the post.

In short, it’s a full roster of talent, not just a top-heavy group dependent on its stars.

“We’re one of the few teams in the country that has depth right now, knock on wood,” Schaefer said. “That’s really shone in our streak right now.”

There’s more to it than all that, of course. But as Schaefer’s club continues its climb to the top of ladder in college basketball, his coaching job, and that of his staff, cannot be emphasized enough.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Weatherspoon Dominating, Bulldogs Rolling As SEC Play Nears

Quinndary Weatherspoon has 52 points in his last two games combined. Despite a wrist injury that, for about one week, appeared to have ended his season, the sophomore is averaging 19.1 points per game as his Mississippi State basketball team finished non-conference play with a blowout victory over UMKC last night.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-33-40-amLast night, that is, in a game where Weatherspoon dropped 25 points in only 25 minutes, drilled five three-pointers and shot 60 percent from the floor.

Weatherspoon is scoring in bunches, and yet, after the game, it was a single assist by his star guard that head coach Ben Howland was most anxious to discuss.

“He had a bounce pass tonight to I.J. [Ready] in transition that was phenomenal,” Howland bragged. “That’s what I’m excited about.”

Early in the second half, a missed UMKC shot bounced perfectly off the backboard and into Weatherspoon’s possession. Ball in hand, he quickly turned and took a step toward midcourt to look for his next move. Senior point guard I.J. Ready had already sprinted out ahead of the transition, being guarded one-on-one as he neared the opposing three-point line. When Ready saw that Weatherspoon was coming, he started to curl out toward the sideline in an attempt to clear the area for yet another Weatherspoon basket.

Instead, Weatherspoon made another call.

“He said, ‘Nooooo!’” Ready remembered his teammate yelling.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-32-01-amSo Ready cut back in toward the basket and Weatherspoon, from halfcourt, launched a one-handed pass through the tiniest of windows. Guarding Ready and with his back to Weatherspoon, the defender didn’t even see the ball sail into the small area of open space between his outstretched arm and size-something shoe, bouncing with perfect spin in the paint to curl right into Ready’s hands, where the steady senior dropped it into the basket for two points and one of Weatherspoon’s four assists on the night.

“That’s probably the best pass I’ve seen him make in a while,” Ready said.

The pass was so good, in fact, and the momentum it fostered was so strong, it forced UMKC to call a timeout to try and calm the team.

Said Howland, “That pass had to be perfect to get right through the only way it could get through. It was phenomenal and it gave us a great jolt.”

And that pass, more than the 25 points or five three-pointers, it what has Howland so excited about Weatherspoon. That, and his seven rebounds, his four assists and, particularly, his strong defense. Injured wrist and all, Weatherspoon is still the best defender on the team.

Weatherspoon is, fairly literally, doing it all, much to the betterment of his team. His defense doesn’t just help create opportunities for his own scoring, but it advances the game for the entire MSU roster.

“He just brings energy on defense,” sophomore Xavian Stapleton said. “We get stops, we score.”

That easy, apparently. And lately, it’s sort of looked that easy. The Bulldogs are 6-1 since Thanksgiving break ended, and they’ve won five games in the month of December, despite a 10-day break for final exams. They’ve won their last three games by an average of 24 points.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-34-15-amHowland doesn’t think they’re peaking – he still thinks they have a long way to go – but he can see clear improvement as MSU finishes the first half of the season.

It’s not just Weatherspoon either, though he’s certainly been great. Stapleton returning from injury, even in limited minutes, has been a spark for the team with his defense, rebounding and energy. Freshman point guard Lamar Peters has responded to suspension with previously unseen gusto. Freshman guard Tyson Carter quietly, as is his nature, is hitting deep threes and racking up steals. Sophomore forward Aric Holman is dominating the paint, while freshman forward Schnider Herard is figuring out just how to use his big frame to his advantage.

As individuals continue to improve, so has the team, now sitting at 9-3 and anticipating the start of SEC play.

“It’s a great vibe,” Ready said. “We set those expectations when the young guys got here. We weren’t settling for less. We really wanted to be undefeated going into conference. That’s how we looked at it. But being in this position, I think it’s the best start since I’ve been here.”

It certainly appears to be that, and Ready, like most, gives a great deal of the credit to Weatherspoon. The jump the Mississippi native has made from freshman to sophomore year is hard to miss, as Ready, Stapleton and Howland each said this season is the best he’s ever been. He’s confident, he’s in control, and he refuses to accept any credit or praise.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-32-54-amOf course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many willing to heap it on him anyway.

“He’s a heck of an offensive talent,” UMKC head coach Kareem Richardson said after Thursday’s game. “He plays at such a really calm pace. He doesn’t get sped up, doesn’t get frustrated much and kind of has that old-hand, calm pace about his game.”

Said Howland, “He creates a lot with his athleticism. He’s really, really playing well. He’s great to coach. He’s phenomenal in terms of being coachable. It’s nice having your best player also be maybe your most coachable player.

“I would think that everybody’s gearing their defense toward him,” he continued. “And again, it’s not about the points he scores. It’s about him leading us to the big ‘W,’ and you do it in a lot of different ways. You do it No. 1 with your defense and your rebounding, then he does it tonight with his passing. For him to be the best he can be, it’s an area he has to continue to grow in, making plays for others.”

Making plays for others, in addition to making plays for himself, has helped MSU to its most promising start in years. Weatherspoon gets the headlines, and deservedly so, for his performances. But his success is just an indicator of the success the entire team is having.

“We’re getting better,” Howland said. “We’re improving, and that’s exciting. That’s what you want as a coach.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment