Second baseman John Holland coming into form in SEC play

By the start of Mississippi State’s Sunday series finale against Auburn, the Bulldogs had gone just over three games without scoring a run. Scoring droughts happen and ruts are plenty common in a sport with so many games over such a long season, but every team needs the same thing when it finds itself in a funk: someone to get the team out of it.

In the bottom of the second on Sunday, MSU got that moment, though it wasn’t from a senior, not from someone who has been with the Bulldogs for years, nor was it from one of the stud youngsters on the roster.

unnamedIt came, however, from someone everyone in the dugout expected to step up when heroics were needed, even if those in the stands were less familiar with the name. When a fastball came right over the plate, junior infielder John Holland swung his bat, collided with the ball and sent it soaring over the fence for his first home run of the year and MSU’s first score in nearly a week, beginning the momentum that led to State’s 3-1 win.

“You could kind of see it coming,” head coach John Cohen said afterward.

He didn’t mean the moment the pitch came, though it was evident at least to Holland in that moment, too. Cohen meant that he, his staff and his players had seen this coming for months, really ever since Holland got to campus from junior college last summer.

“John’s worked so hard on his swing and it’s gotten so much better,” Cohen said. “He’s just really simplified some things … Every day he gets a little more confident. He’s kind of becoming that guy that we thought he would be.”

Holland’s start to his first season at MSU wasn’t slow by any means, especially not as he earned a starting role from the get-go, but it wasn’t quite as fast as he might have hoped, either. But over the last few weeks, while the team as a whole has struggled some offensively, Holland has stepped up and become the player Cohen knew he was capable of being when he signed him.

In nine SEC games, Holland’s .346 batting average is second on the team, behind only outfielder Jacob Robson. His slugging percentage is sitting at .500, his fielding percentage is a perfect 1.000 and his three hits against Auburn on Sunday were a career high.

While his numbers at the plate are measurable, his impact at second base is a bit more difficult to quantify. Cohen believes second base may be the most difficult job in the infield at Dudy Noble, and he certainly thinks the person in that position has to make some of the toughest plays of any on his team.

Not that any athlete is allowed to be, well, unathletic, but that position in particular requires the ability to move quickly and make the body do things typically reserved for advanced yoga classes.

In Holland, Cohen has a player with those characteristics.

“He works on it every day,” Cohen said. “He makes plays like that in practice every single day off live balls off the bat. It’s not an accident. Nothing is an accident. He’s a dynamic athlete and I’m really glad he’s starting to get some more confidence and believe in himself because he’s a really good player.”

unnamed-1Holland’s road that brought him to second base at Mississippi State has been a long one. Born John Skipworth Holland, he was an All-American at Northview High School in Georgia. From there, Holland took the short trip to Tallahassee where he played in 41 games as a freshman at Florida State, helping the Seminoles all the way to the College World Series.

His future looked promising, and it still does, but his career took a turn as he missed the entirety of the 2013 due to injury and ended up transferring to Chattahoochee Valley Community College the next year. During that 2014 season, Holland bounced back strong from his year off. His .406 batting average and 70 runs responsible for helped his team to the NJCAA World Series and their first-ever state championship, while Holland himself was named All-American and conference player of the year.

Oddly enough, the Auburn pitcher he hit the home run against on Sunday was his teammate at CVCC during the 2014 season.

“It was kind of neat to hit one off of him,” Holland admitted. “I played behind him the whole year, so I knew his stuff.”

Following his big year in junior college, Holland had a wide variety of choices for his next move, big programs across the country lining up for his services.

Mississippi State, of course, was his eventual decision, one more step on the road leading him to Sunday’s heroics at the time his team needed him the most.

“I think, hopefully, this will get us going a little bit,” Cohen said after the win. “Thank goodness John Holland did that for us.”

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Prescott aiming for big improvements in final season at MSU

In December of 2010, Dak Prescott finished high school for good, walked out the doors of Haughton High School for the last time and started college at Mississippi State a couple weeks later.

KQOVCAWRCTMXZAN.20150317234424Now, in the spring of 2015, the senior quarterback has already finished his bachelor’s degree and is getting ready for his final season with the Bulldogs. It’s an odd feeling for Prescott.

“Five years ago I was just starting off,” Prescott said after practice over the weekend. “Coach [Dan] Mullen made a comparison the other day that the true freshmen who just came in were in seventh grade when I came in. To think I’m that old is a little surreal, but I’m enjoying every moment of it.”

Over those five years, Prescott has gone from a wide-eyed and unknown freshman to the face of one of the SEC’s rising programs, an adjustment he’s had to learn to handle on the fly. For the all-conference quarterback, the football-centered fame has given him a platform to impact those around him positively. But as he learned over spring break, it’s also made some aspects of life more difficult, particularly his ability to do anything in public without his presence being noticed.

“It’s life,” he said. “There are perks to it and then obviously there’s a negative side to it, but it’s just being the best person I can and live the life that is handed to me and make the most out of it.”

Now, finally, Prescott feels the worst part of the offseason is behind him and his escape – football – is back.

“I feel peaceful whenever I have football, no matter what adversity I’m going through,” he said. “To come back out here and get the ball in the air with my brothers, it feels great.”

From here, the questions are a bit different than what they’ve been before. How does Prescott follow up to the breakout 2014 campaign MSU had? After so many years already at MSU, what can he do to get better? Will he be able to keep opponents from figuring him out?

Coaches often say the biggest jump for a player is between their freshman and sophomore years. If that’s the biggest, then Mullen thinks the gap between junior and senior seasons may be a close second, at least for Prescott.

As the head coach told reporters Saturday, Prescott should know the offense as well as anyone now. Heck, he’s been in the offense longer than his quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson.

“To me, he should be able to teach our offense to anybody at this point,” Mullen said. “He should be able to teach the offense just like the coaches can teach it because he’s been around it for so long now.”

When Mullen talked about redshirt freshmen quarterbacks in spring practice, he talked about guys just trying to figure out where they’re supposed to be, what they’re supposed to do and how to catch up with the speed of the game.

ZZZHBYLSXMDREIO.20140925210704Prescott, however, knows every play. He knows every route, every protection, every audible and every look the defense is going to give him. He’s gone from an inexperienced change-of-pace quarterback relying on athleticism early in his career to a strong, confident and knowledgeable signal caller for whom the game has slowed down considerably.

“There’s just a lot of comfort for him out there,” Mullen said of Prescott. “The things he’s working on are different than what a lot of other guys are working on. You’re trying to get to graduate level things of how fast he can make decisions. How much he can anticipate throws, put things into tighter windows, because that’s going to make him an even better player next year.”

In particular, Mullen said Prescott’s awareness and pocket presence are accelerating at a high level. During full-team passing drills Saturday, Mullen said, his veteran status showed clearly.

“With blitz pick-up, he did a great job sliding, moving in the pocket and buying time for himself and trying to anticipate to get the ball out fast and into windows,” Mullen said.

The experience and comfort, paired with Prescott’s personality, have made him the unquestioned leader on the practice (and game) field for the Bulldogs. Just as much as he may be a team captain, he may be the team professor, too. Prescott works with the younger quarterbacks constantly, as one would expect, always pulling them to the side between plays or after practice to discuss the good and bad of what happened.

When working with the full team, however, it’s more than just the passers. Prescott immediately finds his offensive line after plays during scrimmage situations, just “to make sure we all saw the same thing out there and we are all on the same page on protections.

He talks with running backs, puts in extra time with receivers; he even came in during breaks from football between December and March to work with new center Jamaal Clayborn who moved over from guard to replace the graduated starter Dillon Day.

Prescott himself has improved, it seems, but he’s not content to be the only one getting better. It’s not difficult to see him ending up as a coach when his playing days are over. He loves to teach.

“It only makes me better and makes me sharp on my knowledge of the game,” Prescott said. “I just try to make sure I know every aspect and be able to teach it to all the other guys like it’s nothing.”

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24 hours behind the scenes with Ben Howland on his first day at MSU

2:00 a.m., Tuesday, Starkville

unnamedBen Howland has been Mississippi State’s new basketball coach for all of a few hours, and at age 57, he’s close to pulling an all-nighter for the first time since college as he studies for a test the next day. For Howland to coach, he just has to sign a few papers. For him to recruit players, however, he’s got to pass the NCAA’s lengthy open-book test on rules and regulations, the laws and bylaws governing nearly everything he’s going to do off the court as the Bulldogs’ new head man. And recruiting is his focus in the first few days on the job, trying to lure both fans and prospects to Starkville and MSU.

8:00 a.m., Tuesday, Mize Pavillion offices

As much as everything that happened in the process of hiring Howland was a whirlwind, he’s an organized man, very structured when he can be. When he gets to his new office first thing in the morning, he wants a glass of cold water. By nine, the need for caffeine kicks in. Howland wants a Diet Coke and a cup of ice. The Diet Coke by itself doesn’t complete his ritual. He needs the cup of ice to pour it over and the caffeine jolt it provides.

His wife and daughter are big coffee drinkers, he told me, but he didn’t like the taste as a kid and has never wanted to acquire the taste, if he even could.

“I know this stuff is probably awful for you,” he said, swishing the Diet Coke in the cup, “but I was just never a coffee guy. My wife and daughter are all over it. It’s a big part of a lot of people’s day. I just never liked the taste.”

I was there, with my mug full of hot coffee, to trail Howland throughout the day, his first 24 hours on the job. It happened particularly fast, as MSU Athletic Director Scott Stricklin called him Saturday, again on Sunday, met with him Monday, then flew him (and his family) to Starkville that night, making it official when Stricklin tweeted a picture of he and Howland together on campus.

Howland was tired even before he stayed up all night studying for his recruiting test, but as he mentioned before taking it Tuesday morning, that was the most important thing he had to do. There was a full itinerary of appearances and interviews, but the test allowing him to get (and keep) the players he hopes to coach was his priority.

At 9:28, the first of those itinerary items was ready to be crossed off: an interview with Bo Bounds, a sports radio host out of Jackson, Mississippi.

“Can I use the landline?” Howland asked his media relations director Gregg Ellis as he motioned toward the phone on his desk he’d not yet used.

“Of course,” Ellis told him. “My cell gets good reception here, but we can go either way.”

“I prefer to use the landline,” Howland said. “As much as I’m on the phone, I don’t want to fry my brain.”

The explanation followed of how to use the office phone, how to dial out for off-campus numbers and the long-distance code required for dialing out of the area code.

“I’m gonna have to do this every time I call out of the city?” he asked, consequently explaining that at UCLA they had somehow engineered a workaround on his office landline so he wouldn’t have to type in the long codes each time. “I live on the phone.”

He happily made the call, however, without the soon-to-come workaround. His first interview at MSU sounded like it was his 20th; his polish from two years on TV and a decade in the Los Angeles market are obvious.

Howland told Bounds about being in New York when MSU last played in the Final Four, how he watched that team under Richard Williams and was impressed. He talked about meeting with the current team on Monday night, how they were incredibly respectful and attentive and looked him in the eye. He told Bounds how nice the facilities were, something he hadn’t been as aware of from a distance.

“The practice facility and my office are just beautiful,” he said. “I’m really impressed.”

He went on to share how much he loves college football, especially the SEC (“If you’re a college football fan, there’s only one league to watch.”), and how impressed he was watching Bulldog quarterback Dak Prescott under head coach Dan Mullen (“I can’t wait to meet him”) back in the fall when MSU ascended to No. 1 in the country.

9:45 a.m., Tuesday, Drill Field on campus

unnamed-1If Howland’s biggest priority is recruiting future students, his second biggest is very clearly to recruit the current students. In the first of several planned surprises and activities this week, Howland was crashing a government class on campus taught by White Waide.

As part of the surprise interruption, he wanted to take a selfie with the couple hundred students in the auditorium and tweet it out. However, in his two years of fly-fishing, TV commentating and film studying, Howland has gotten slightly behind on technology and social media. Earlier that morning, he was on the phone with his daughter trying to figure out his twitter password so he could log back in. Since re-gaining access to that account, he’s tweeted more in three days than the previous two years combined.

Before he went into the classroom, he stopped the group mid-stride to practice his attempt.

“Selfie? Yeah, I think I can do that,” Howland said, looking down his nose at his iPhone. “This is how you switch the camera,” he concluded, tapping the button to reverse the view of the lens.

He turned out to be a natural at selfies, snapping and tweeting a good one when he finished talking to the class. In that auditorium, he explained why he was doing such a thing.

“Everywhere I’ve been,” he told them, “the students are the key to a great atmosphere.”

10:30 a.m., Tuesday, University photography studio

On the way to have his official headshot and a few promotional pictures taken, Howland told the group of us with him about his dinner the night before with MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum.

“What an impressive man he was. And his wife Rhonda is just great.”

From the sound of things, Howland was the one asking questions of the Keenums and listening to them speak, instead of the other way around.

In researching Howland and talking to people about him after I found out MSU was hiring him, I heard some things about him that were confirmed on Tuesday. Primarily, that he is incredibly curious. Howland is thirsty for knowledge, constantly inquisitive and always wanting to learn and know more.

“He’d have made a great reporter,” Ellis told me later that day.

“I had the same thought,” I replied.

When Howland had that dinner with the Keenums, he asked the President what the split was between undergraduate and graduate students at MSU. He wanted to know what programs were big at State. As we walked around between appearances Tuesday, he asked about every building, what type of classes were taught inside and what the academics were like.

“Is that guy a football player?” he asked, seeing a large young man walking out of a building across the street.

“Yep, offensive lineman.”

unnamed-4Passing by various trophy cases, Howland stopped every time to learn the names and history of victories of the past and the All-Americans who made them happen.

Outside the studio he had his portrait taken, there hung several pictures on the wall of former MSU athletes.

“That’s Anne’s dad,” he said, pointing to one picture.

Anne Stricklin is Scott Stricklin’s wife, the former Anne Howell, daughter of NBA Hall of Famer and former MSU basketball player Bailey Howell. Howland had barely been in town 12 hours and he already recognized Howell from his playing days at State without so much as a nametag on the picture.

“I did not like him when I was a kid,” Howland told us with a laugh. “He was always beating my Lakers.”

Later that day, he passed by a mural on the wall outside MSU’s locker room of several former stars. He stopped the traveling group and asked us to tell him about each player.

Passing by the baseball stadium later, he asked about the team. Each person he met, he asked where they’re from, where they went to school, where they’ve worked before. He’s thirsty for knowledge, some of it relevant and much of it not.

He retains it, too. If he met 500 people (he met more), I heard him confidently repeat over 100 of their names at a later time.

On the way out of one office on campus, he stopped and grabbed copies of five magazines all about MSU so he could read up on the school’s academic side. In his introduction speech later that day, he knew enough to talk about MSU being the flagship research university in the state, something the school very much prides itself on.

Every morning, starting that Tuesday and presumably going for the duration of his tenure, he will have someone on the staff collect every item written about he and his team that day and bring it to his office so he can read every word. He wants to know what people are saying.

It goes beyond sports, too. He was still carrying around a copy of the Starkville Daily News late Tuesday afternoon, reading it from cover-to-cover.

“Tell me about this Mr. Smith,” he said, eyes looking at a column written on him by sports editor Danny P. Smith.

Beyond the info gathering on the school, taking selfies with students and realizing he needed to buy more maroon clothing (“I’ve gotta get some maroon stripes. I’m gonna be spending a whole lot of money on new suits.”), Howland finally got time in the afternoon to sit down and worry about his actual team.

1:00 p.m., Tuesday, lunch in Mize Pavillion conference room

Finally, finally, finally, Howland was getting what he wanted. Like a starving man at a buffet, Howland’s hunger to get back to coaching has been aching the last two years. Few children have been as excited on Christmas morning as Howland seems to be to get to work on Mississippi State basketball.

It’s one thing to read the quotes from stories the last couple years about how much he missed it and how much he wanted to get back into it, but a totally different thing to get to see him rip the proverbial wrapping paper off the present that is MSU’s basketball program.

unnamed-5Over a lunch of barbecue and baked beans, Howland met with his director of operations, the head trainer and the head strength coach to talk about the state of things. He wanted the rundown of what games they had scheduled next year and what openings there were for some games he had in mind. He needed updates on injuries and recoveries and he wanted to know who was strong, who was disciplined and who needed some work.

The very first question Howland asked strength coach Richard Akins wasn’t about who’s the most talented, who’s the strongest or even who might think about leaving.

“Who’s tough?” Howland asked him. “Who are my tough guys?”

That’s what Howland wants in a player. Over his long career of coaching and recruiting, he’s signed the guys no one else wanted and he’s signed No. 1 players in the country. He’s sent both to the NBA. His type isn’t about size, skills or stars. It’s about toughness.

“Chicken,” was Akins’ first response, referencing rising senior guard Craig Sword before mentioning a few others with Howland’s requisite quality.

Talking to the trainer, Howland opened up a bit about his philosophy.

“I believe in flexibility,” he said after asking if any of the players do yoga.

Of the many things he’s learned and taken notes on the last two years of seeing other programs and what they do, proper care for the body is one of his favorites.

5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Bryan Airfield

Following his class-crashing, test-taking, interview-giving and press-conference-filled morning and afternoon, Howland was on the school’s private seven-seat jet to fly down to Jackson and throw out the first pitch at MSU’s baseball game against Southern Miss. It’s only a 20-minute flight, but the six of us were still in a rush to land, hop in the vans waiting on us and get to the stadium in Pearl to throw out the first pitch at 6:15. We made it, barely, as Howland had enough time to meet baseball coach John Cohen and throw a couple practice pitches with pitcher Myles Gentry before stepping onto the mound.

As the successful head coach at UCLA for most of a decade, Howland has thrown out plenty of first pitches, many of them in front of massive MLB crowds at storied stadiums. He was nervous for this one, though, because it was his first since an arm injury sidelined him and made motions such as throwing a bit more difficult. Just as he was with the selfie that morning, he was adamant about getting some practice in before he did the act in front of a crowd.

unnamed-2His pitch was fine, of course, but it was after the reason for the trip that the real action started. Trying to make it from the dugout to the press box for a radio interview, Howland’s path took him straight into the grandstands and through the concourse, a 40-minute walk to get a couple hundred feet. He was a rock star, there’s no other way to put it.

Surrounded by four or five cameramen from local TV stations, escorted by Ellis and trailed by me, he was stopped at every step for a handshake, autograph, picture or quick conversation. Those MSU fans too shy to walk up and talk to him all watched, pointed and smiled from their seats as he worked his way up the aisle, happily taking a moment or five for every one who approached him.

The excitement within MSU’s fanbase about Howland is something most associated with the school say they haven’t seen in some time.

8:30 p.m., Tuesday, MSU jet

Flying through the airspace between Jackson and Starkville, Howland’s day was finally slowing down. It wasn’t yet done, as he had a list of recruits to call and appointments to make once the plane touched down, but the whirlwind that had started the night before seemed to have reached something of a calm.

If Howland had reclined his seat, closed his eyes and rested for a moment, none on the plane would have faulted him. But while his adrenaline should have run out hours before, it was still pumping. I listened from my seat as he and Stricklin spent every moment on the plane talking excitedly about his passion: basketball.

They broke down the evolution of the game, what’s good and what’s bad about modern basketball, how the personalities have changed and the attention that goes into it.

For both Stricklin and Howland, it’s not about one particular style, look or form. Just as it is with the type of players Howland wants, all shapes and sizes and are accepted. For him, it’s about desire.

“Guys like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker turn down more money somewhere else so that they can be legends,” Howland told Stricklin as the plane descended on Starkville. “And they are legends of the game.”

With a full resume already and his newest challenge in front of him, Howland is hoping he can become a legend himself.

Stricklin is hoping so, too, if I had to guess.

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Live blog: Ben Howland’s introductory press conference

At 2:30 p.m. today, Ben Howland will be introduced as the new head coach of Mississippi State men’s basketball. We’ll have live updates here from his press conference.

——————————

Alright, and he’s here. Fun atmosphere as he walks out to cheerleaders, the band playing and a big crowd in The Hump. Started out by fist-bumping all the current players who are sitting on the front row.

And it looks like Scott Stricklin is going to introduce him. MSU’s athletic director says he first met Howland several years back when he was working at Kentucky and the Wildcats were in a tournament with Howland’s UCLA squad.

When the job came open at MSU, Howland was the first target he thought of.

“There was no question in my mind, there was one target we had to start with, and that was Ben Howland.”

“Mississippi State basketball can compete at the highest level,” Stricklin says. “Every single person must be on the same page and willing to do their part … That means filling up this arena and making it, once again, the toughest place to play in the Southeastern Conference.”

And now it’s time for Howland.

“My family and I are honored to be here today, so excited to become a part of this University,” he opens. “It’s an incredible honor and blessing for me.”

Howland says what impressed him most talking with Stricken was the passion and understanding of the commitment it takes to win and build a program at MSU.

As for winning on the court, Howland says, “It starts with having a constant defensive presence you count on … Offensively, we will start every possession by pushing the ball.”

“One of the things our players will understand form me as a coach is I praise unselfishness above all,” he says. “Play for your teammates.”

Howland says he met with players last night: “I was most impressed with their attentiveness, their eye contact. They were raised the right way.”

Howland says the next thing he’s excited about is recruiting. I can vouch for that, he’s been talking about it all day. Expects to have a group of assistants who will be talented in that regard.

“We’re putting together what I believe will be one of the best basketball staffs in the country.”

As for the current team, Howland says he’ll give them some more time off. He likes to give players a solid three weeks after the season is over to recover from the grind of the year.

Howland’s recruiting goal: “Bring the best players in the state of Mississippi and in the south to Mississippi State.”

“I’ve seen the support at Davis Wade Stadium and I know it is the envy of programs around the country,” Howland said. “I am in awe and have extraordinary respect for what Dan Mullen and his staff have done here at Mississippi State.”

Howland on Dak Prescott: “He really embodies the type of player I want for our basketball program. He inspires people … I’m excited to watch Dak become the first Heisman Trophy winner in the state of Mississippi.”

Howland: “We’re going to do special things to reach out to our students and to our fans. We want you to know our important you are to what we are doing.”

Last night, Howland had dinner with President Mark Keenum and his wife. Loved the family. “The main thing Dr. Keenum told me: you must beat Ole Miss.” Got a good reaction from the crowd on that one.

Pretty emotional moment there as Howland introduced his wife and daughter. Got choked up and had to pause. He’s a big family guy, said that was one of the things he really liked about MSU the more he learned the last few days.

We’re on to the question-asking portion of the press conference. First one about recruiting.

“I’m excited to recruit the south,” Howland said after listing several southern players he’s recruited and signed before. “I’m looking forward to make that homeless in terms of recruiting.”

Howland took his recruiting test this morning (stayed up until 2:30 a.m. studying for it) and says he got every question right. He’s already started calling recruits.

“This is my fourth head-coaching job, and I know, this will be the best I’ve ever done.”

Why MSU? “I think there’s tons of potential here, and the leadership is so good.” Loved the family values and opportunity to play in the SEC. Mentioned facilities, as well.

Howland says he was in his living room this weekend watching tape of MSU’s games this season. “We have some pieces to work with.” Likes having the group of seniors back, as well.

 

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Instant reaction: Ben Howland hired as new MSU basketball coach

It’s official: Mississippi State has hired Ben Howland as its new men’s basketball coach. The school announced it Monday night when athletic director Scott Stricklin tweeted a picture of his new man for the program ringing a cowbell.

unnamedWith three Final Four appearances and Coach of the Year honors in three different leagues, Howland arrives as one of the most decorated hires in the history of MSU sports. In three previous stops at Northern Arizona (1995-99), Pittsburgh (2000-03) and UCLA (2004-13), Howland has amassed a 401-206 overall record, taking his teams to the NCAA Tournament 10 different times.

“We have a coach who is a proven winner that’s taken three schools to the NCAA Tournament,” Stricklin said in an official release. “Ben is someone who is ready to invest in the people of Mississippi and Bulldogs everywhere, while bringing championship basketball back to the Hump. Mississippi State basketball can compete at the highest level, just as several of our other teams have done in recent years, and I’m excited to have coach Howland lead us back to that level.”

Howland has spent the last two years working in the media world as a TV analyst for college basketball, but indications are that he has been anxious to get back into coaching recently, much of why he and MSU were able to come together so quickly.

In a USA Today story last month on the 57-year-old coach, Howland explained both his desire to return to coaching and the lessons he’s learned in the time he’s been off the court. Of note in that story, Howland offered a view into the style of play he plans to employ, and it appears State fans can expect an up-tempo game, a switch he made late in his tenure at UCLA.

In his final season with the Bruins, that style of play helped his team average 74 points per game as it won the Pac-12 title.

“It’s something I should have done much earlier in my career,” he told USA Today. “That is a regret, because I thought it really helped us. [Arizona coach] Sean Miller told me this fall it was really tough for them to deal with how much we pushed the ball. We beat them three times that year. That’s something — pushing the tempo — that I’ll always do moving forward. It really helped.”

Beyond style of play, it would appear recruiting and talent development are high on Howland’s list of priorities as he’s had over 20 of his players go on to the NBA, including the likes of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Darren Collison and Jordan Farmar. Twice at UCLA (2008 and 2012) his recruiting classes were ranked as No. 1 in the country by 247Sports.

Howland’s hire brings a level of excitement to the MSU basketball program it hasn’t seen in quite some time, a fact not missed by MSU President Mark Keenum.

“I am impressed with Coach Howland’s resume,” Keenum said in the school’s official release. “He has been successful at the highest levels of college basketball, and I have every confidence he will bring that same proven, winning formula to Mississippi State as well. I know the MSU family will embrace Coach Howland and his family and will fully support his efforts to put our Bulldog basketball team in position to compete for championships.”

As for the immediate future, Howland will have a press conference open to the public Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 in the Humphrey Coliseum and I’m told he has plans to meet with current players as soon as they can all be brought together.

MSU returns four out of five starters from the 2014-15 season, including the leaders in nearly every statistical category.

“I’m just so humbled and grateful to be the new basketball coach at Mississippi State University,” Howland said in the release. “I’m elated and excited about the opportunity to build a consistent winner here at State. I know we have some of the greatest fans in the country and I look forward to making them proud of our team and our efforts. Hail State.”

We’ll update here as more information becomes available.

Just for fun, here are the reactions on Twitter from some national media on MSU’s hire of Howland.

Dick Vitale, ESPN: “Ben Howland will bring a winner’s mentality to the SEC. A good move by Miss. State Bulldogs.”

Brad Evans, Yahoo! Sports: “Miss State’s hire of Ben Howland is extraordinary. Proven winner in different locales. Worked w/ him. Can tell you the fire burns brightly.”

Paul Finebaum, SEC Network: “Ben Howland is an extraordinary hire for Mississippi State.”

Jeff Borzello, ESPN recruiting: “Ben Howland has proven he can win at multiple spots, he’s landed big-time talent from different areas, and he’s willing to change styles.”

Jeff Eisenberg, Yahoo! Sports: “He’s a hard worker and outstanding tactical coach who has proven he can win with all sorts of players in all parts of the country. There’s no reason to believe he won’t do the same for Mississippi State.”

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Hard ending still offers promise of bright future for Schaefer and MSU

Fairy tales don’t always have happy endings.

When Mississippi State lost to Duke in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, it wasn’t the longest postseason run MSU has ever had. It wasn’t the most high-profile game the program had ever been in, and it was far from the best game the Bulldogs have ever played, especially this year.

10930196_1009790892382306_3393239529708803007_nBut win or lose at the end, one thing is certain: this was the best full season in the history of MSU’s women’s basketball program by nearly all measurements, and it wasn’t even expected to happen.

The 27 wins were the most in school history by more than a couple. The 11 conference victories and third-place finish in the SEC were tops in the maroon and white record books. Single-game attendance records were set then broken over the course of the year, and the full-season home crowd record was smashed, tens of thousands making their way to The Hump to watch the Bulldogs.

Building a program is supposed to take time, but head coach Vic Schaefer cares little for the calendar most expected him to follow. In just three years, he’s taken MSU quite literally from the bottom to the top, resurrecting a once-proud program and taking it to greater heights even than the SEC legend who preceded him.

“I’m proud of my team, proud of the fight in my kids, proud to be at Mississippi State University and see us represent it on a national stage,” Schaefer told reporters after Sunday’s game. “If you’re a Bulldog, I don’t think there’s any doubt in the sense of pride you have in our program, these young ladies and our university.”

Said senior guard Kendra Grant, “Just to see what we came from, for me to witness it transform over the years has been amazing. To be a part of it is even better.”

While the final game of Schaefer’s third season wasn’t what he wanted in any fashion, the year as a whole is marked as incredibly successful for Schaefer, and most importantly, it’s classified as an immensely promising jump-start for the future.

MSU’s defensive MVP in 2014-15 was sophomore Dominique Dillingham. Freshman Victoria Vivians led the conference in scoring and was named the best collegiate player in the state of Mississippi. The catalyst for State’s first-round win over Tulane was sophomore forward Breanna Richardson. And any who have watched their share of MSU games this year will say that while others may have fuller stat lines, the most exciting player to watch on the court is freshman point guard Morgan William.

The future isn’t just bright for MSU. It’s already here.

“We should be pretty good, as long as the coach doesn’t screw them up, for the next three or four years,” Schaefer joked earlier this week.

1507189_1009789485715780_3914728631192937027_nAnd that’s just with the players already on the roster. MSU has recruited better and better with each year, as Schaefer has often said that his goal is for every recruiting class he has to be better than the before it. His last one might be hard to top, but he and his staff will certainly and if they bring in anywhere near that caliber of players on a consistent basis, the Bulldogs won’t be good for just three or four years. They’ll be good for the next decade, or whenever Schaefer decides to hang up the whistle and spend his retirement on his fishing boat.

“We continue to recruit well,” Schaefer said. “I feel really, really good about our future. I just love our competitiveness and toughness. You cannot deny the competitiveness and toughness and the desire in our kids. They define what Mississippi State is about.”

Perhaps it’s not fair to call this the end of the fairy tale, but just the end of a chapter. The story Schaefer will write at Mississippi State is just beginning.

“We have a lot more to accomplish,” Vivians said Sunday. “I think the future is bright.”

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Schaefer hoping for first “complete” game against Duke in second round

Borrowing a cliché: for Mississippi State to get something it’s never had, it’s going to have to do something it’s never done.

10981699_1009790162382379_2463656110562588797_nMSU’s women’s basketball team has the task of slaying a college basketball giant tomorrow when it plays Duke with the Sweet Sixteen on the line and State head coach Vic Schaefer said what the Bulldogs need in order to win is something they haven’t yet had this year: a complete game.

“We’ve said it a lot after wins. We didn’t play very well and were still good enough to win,” Schaefer said. “I think it’s a good sign … But I’m still waiting for us to get it all together and click for 40 minutes.”

The Bulldogs have shown flashes, to be sure, beating ranked opponents and winning games even when they had an off night. The fact that MSU has done as well as it has, recording a record number of wins both overall and in the conference, despite not yet reaching their ceiling, is as impressive as anything.

“We all believe, if we can ever get it all together, that night will be special,” Schaefer said. “To beat Duke tomorrow, we’re probably gonna have to have that day.”

The No. 16 team in the country, the host school Blue Devils are big, long and physical all over the court. They’re deep, talented, experienced and, like MSU, hungry to advance.

While both teams won their first round games on Friday, neither felt it played great basketball for the entirety of their games. Each squad considered itself lucky to have advanced after less than stellar performances.

Following Friday’s win over Tulane, Schaefer conceded that a team of players participating in their first NCAA Tournament game may have been a little nervous to start.

“I knew we were gonna have some nerves yesterday,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re kids. They’re happy go lucky. But at the same time, we’ve talked about flipping the switch. When you walk out of the locker room, you’ve gotta leave the little girl in there because you’re about to play some pretty big women.”

1381210_1009790945715634_4471651667075646824_nAnd against a Duke team with seven players 6’3” or taller, those big foes will be everywhere.

The plan for State will be to find a way to get Duke off its game on both sides of the ball and force them into backup plans. For the Bulldogs, the defensive game plan will involve tough perimeter defense and forcing contested shots.

“They want to play pretty ball,” sophomore guard Dominique Dillingham said. “We want them to have to run their offense through the post so we can muck them up.”

Duke head coach Joanne McCallie knows the attack is coming and concedes it can be a challenge to stop it.

“[Schaefer] is a defensive mastermind and he knows that we don’t have any point guards,” she said. “He’s one of the best defensive coaches in the country. Mississippi State is trending in a beautiful way. They’ve got great players and you’ve just got to play the game. We’ve just got to figure some things out.”

Offensively, MSU knows it has to get the ball in the post more consistently to senior forward Martha Alwal, who McCallie referred to as a “super” player who disrupts the size advantage her team usually has. Alwal only had four points and five rebounds in 22 minutes of play against Tulane. To advance to the next round, Schaefer said, that can’t happen again.

“We’re not gonna win tomorrow if she doesn’t play well,” he told reporters Saturday.

The good news for MSU though is they feel they’ve already got their bad game out of the way for the postseason, they’ve already done more than anyone outside of the locker room expected them to this year and they’re the road team in a hostile environment at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Basically, they’re playing with house money. The pressure is on Duke and the Bulldogs can just play their game.

“I don’t think we’ve got to do anything to validate our season. They’ve performed beyond anyone’s expectations,” Schaefer said. “Our players have had a special year. It’ll take our best effort probably of the year to win here tomorrow.”

While that effort hasn’t happened yet, Schaefer is hopeful Sunday can be the day.

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Schaefer, Bulldogs down Tulane to advance to NCAA Second Round

Had he known what he was in for, he might have changed his wish, but head coach Vic Schafer said he wanted a defensive game and that’s what he got Friday when Mississippi State beat Tulane 57-47 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

ZVTFZFLGIAVZXQW.20121130195724The Bulldogs held the Green Wave to 13-of-47 shooting on the day, but it was the second half that was particularly impressive for State’s defense. Down 27-22 at the break, Tulane went on a quick run at the start of the second half to gain their first lead. To respond, MSU then went on a 20-2 run to take control of the game and earn a lead they never lost.

It was during the media timeout between those two runs in the second half when the game was won for MSU. After Tulane took its first lead, Schaefer gathered the team around during a timeout and looked his players individually in the eyes, scanning around the group. He told his team they were being out-played, out-hustled and out-toughed.

“He never says thing like that,” senior forward Martha Alwal said after the game.

But on Friday he did, and following his speech, Schaefer drew up a play on the white board and from there, his Bulldogs started their 20-2 run and never looked back.

“I felt like we had gotten out-toughed and out-played,” Schaefer said, “and I thought we really responded at the moment. From there, we really played well and executed well.”

While the game itself wasn’t exactly pretty with its 65-plus missed shots and nearly 40 total turnovers, it was a beautiful outcome for a Bulldog team who hadn’t even been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010, let alone won a game. Both the appearance and the victory speak to what Schaefer has been able to do since arriving in Starkville, and it also fulfilled a promise he made when he first got the job.

The story has been told before of Schaefer telling star forward Martha Alwal that if she stuck with him, he’d get her to the Big Dance before she graduated. When MSU finished third in the SEC this year with a 26-6 overall record, that particular guarantee came through.

What made Friday even more meaningful for Alwal: it was her 22nd birthday.

“It was really special. At first I was sulking because I wanted to go do something for my birthday, but I guess a win as just as good as going out,” Alwal joked. “But it’s awesome to be in the NCAA Tournament and make it to the Round of 32. We’ve been working really hard at it since Coach Schaefer got here.”

As for the game itself, it was the play of another forward, sophomore Breanna Richardson, that made the difference for MSU. When the Bulldogs were struggling to score and seemed to lack energy, Richardson carried the team along. Her scoring run early in the second half helped build the lead MSU kept until the final buzzer.

With 15 points and 12 rebounds, the third double-double of Richardson’s season came at the time her team needed it the most. Of most importance, Schaefer said, were the rebounds Richardson pulled down all night.

“Basically, every time somebody shot, I was going backside to see if I could get the rebound and get something started,” Richardson said.

Next up for the Bulldogs: a match-up with the home team, the Duke Blue Devils, on Sunday at noon eastern time. Duke needed a last-minute shot to win their first round game against Albany, and now it looks as if both teams will enter the game with extra motivation, as well as the Sweet Sixteen on the line.

“It’s good to know you won an NCAA Tournament game when you didn’t play your best,” Schaefer said. “We all came here wanting the opportunity to play Duke … It’s a tremendous challenge, no question.”

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NCAA Tourney Round 1: Breaking down the Bulldogs and Green Wave

Today, the NCAA Tournament begins for Mississippi State women’s basketball. The Bulldogs face Tulane at 2:30 eastern time, though both schools hail from the central time zone.

“We probably could’ve saved a lot of money and a lot of gas and met halfway and played this weekend,” MSU head coach Vic Schaefer joked.

EYTDZHIEXLOZSLW.20141208211435If he seems a little comfortable with the opponent, it’s because he sort of is. After all, it was around this time last year the Bulldogs and Green Wave were having these same conversations and making these same preparations before playing each other in the WNIT. In fact, this will be the fourth time in Schaefer’s three seasons at MSU that he’s played Tulane, having hosted them for closed scrimmages before the first two seasons.

Senior forward Martha Alwal has been there every time for State.

“I think it gives us a little bit of an advantage,” she said, “because we know some of what they do. We know some of their plays. I think we have a good idea what they’re about.”

Added sophomore guard Dominique Dillingham, “We know who we need to stop. We know what their sets are already. We just need to play defense.”

The process of gaining that familiarity has also been a sort of incidental measuring stick for MSU, as its performances against Tulane have been a good indicator of where the Bulldogs are as a team.

In Schaefer’s first year, for instance, Tulane dominated MSU in a closed scrimmage. In fact, it was so bad that Schaefer said he apologized to Tulane’s head coach knowing that they had wasted their time by playing his team.

“It was absolutely one of the most embarrassing days of my life in coaching,” he said. “Thank goodness the doors were closed.”

One year later and one year more experienced, they scrimmaged again. The Green Wave won round two, as well, but by a much closer margin and in much more competitive fashion. It was a sign that Schaefer’s team had improved.

Then when they met in public for the first time at the end of last season, Schaefer was able to see improvement not just from year-to-year, but within that individual season. The Bulldogs got a 77-68 win in the first round of the WNIT, starting their run to the quarterfinals of the tournament.

Now, MSU has a chance to do the same thing. If they can beat Tulane in the first round, they can start a run. Plus, they could even the series up under Schaefer. And it’s experiences like those that MSU plans to draw from this weekend.

On a young team reliant on several freshmen, experienced players like Dillingham and Alwal will be the leaders who have played in the lose-and-go-home situations. Their final game last year was a two-point loss to South Florida in the fourth round of the WNIT, and it’s one Alwal doesn’t seem likely to ever forget.

Asked what she tells young players about the postseason, her answer came quick.

“You can’t take even one play off,” Alwal said, referencing that game they lost by one possession. “I think we’ve learned from that. You can’t take anything for granted.”

Looking at the specifics of today’s game, it’s a matchup of two fairly different teams, with Tulane being veteran-laden and MSU going heavy on the freshmen and sophomores. As Schaefer pointed out, many of the same players who embarrassed his team that first scrimmage are going to be on the court today.

But the similarity for the two teams is that both are led by a star freshman. For MSU, it’s Victoria Vivians, the SEC’s leading scorer and the winner of the Gillom Trophy for best collegiate player in the state of Mississippi.

For Tulane, it’s the freshman guard from New Orleans, Kolby Morgan. She leads the Green Wave in scoring and is the only member of the team averaging double-digits. She’s tops on the team in free throws and steals, while she’s second on the squad in rebounds, despite being a 5’8” guard.

The rest of the Green Wave, for the most part, Schaefer and his players are quite familiar with. Just as Tulane is familiar with the veterans on State’s squad, while wholly inexperienced with Vivians and the rest of her stud class of freshmen.

In a game between teams who have been playing regularly, it’s likely the new faces to the game will be the ones who decide the outcome.

But while Tulane knows MSU, it’s every other basketball fan in the country the Bulldogs will have an opportunity to make an impression on as March Madness begins.

“This tournament is huge for us,” Alwal said, “because everyone else is going to get a glimpse of what our team is like and what it’s about.”

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Schaefer, Bulldogs arrive in Durham for NCAA Tournament

To get to the top of college basketball in America, Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team had to traverse some of the less-traveled roads in Europe first.

ZVTMGAQGFUMAYUY.20150113211749They’re here in Durham, North Carolina, for, as head coach Vic Schaefer put it, “the greatest event in college athletics, the NCAA Basketball Tournament.” The Bulldogs made it this far for a variety of reasons, including three All-SEC players and the conference Coach of the Year. They finished third in the SEC, set records in attendance and wins and already have one tournament championship under their collective belts this year, the preseason WNIT.

Schaefer has recruited well, coached even better and taken MSU from doormat to deadly in the treacherous SEC in just three seasons. State’s appearance in the NCAAs is a testament to what he’s done and the many names and circumstances that went into all the success. But to hear Schaefer tell it, the most important thing to happen was an overseas trip the team took this summer to play four games and get to know each other.

“Europe started it all,” he said. “The chemistry they had over there immediately was pretty special … We really played beyond our years.”

The trip culminated with a big win over an all-star team full of European professionals, an impressive feat for a college team with so many young players. Being thrown into the fire like that in Europe, and then again in the preseason WNIT when the three seniors were injured, has paid off for the freshmen and sophomores MSU has depended on all season to get where they are now.

At the end of most games, Schaefer pointed out, he’s got two freshmen, two sophomores and just one senior on the court. Yet they’ve won 26 games, many of them on last-second shots.

One of the biggest parts in the MSU basketball machine this season has, of course, been freshman star Victoria Vivians. The Mississippi native got to MSU with high expectations, and may have already exceeded them. In her first year of college, she led the Southeastern Conference in scoring, was named the best collegiate player in the state of Mississippi and became the catalyst for one of the country’s quickest team turnarounds.

“She’s so talented,” senior forward Martha Alwal said of her teammate. “We’ve played several people in the SEC who just couldn’t stop her.”

Victoria Vivians

Victoria Vivians

Despite her in-conference dominance, Vivians was somehow left off the All-SEC first team by both the coaches and the Associated Press. Her coaches and teammates are at a loss for why that happened, but she brushes the snub off as easily as she does most of those who try to defend her.

“I try not to let that affect me,” she said. “I don’t need to be worrying about that. I need to be worried about helping my teammates and trying to win the Final Four.”

Here at Duke, that journey continues as MSU will take the court in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, one more stop on their tour of re-establishing the MSU name in college basketball.

“I think we’ve gained respect nationally in a very short time,” Schaefer said. “We have the respect of everybody and everybody knows who Victoria Vivians is, and that’s why we’re where we are.”

And where they are today is Cameron Indoor, one of the most storied basketball facilities in the country. For Schaefer and his players to make it to their press conference Thursday, they had to walk by the names of double-digit NBA players, seeing the jerseys hung of players every basketball fan in the country knows.

Of all the great players to play on this court, many great coaches have coached on it, too. And while his career is young, Schaefer is one of them. The last time he played at Cameron Indoor was as an assistant with Texas A&M in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. The result: the Aggies won and went on to claim the National Championship.

FPPIUMQHVBYQZAS.20150217201943Schaefer’s team now has a lot of basketball left, but the potential is there for a group that’s been in the Top 15 the majority of the year and still, according to the head coach, hasn’t even played its best basketball yet.

He’s got a point though. Early in the season, MSU was without its three seniors. Over the course of the year, the freshmen on the team have been learning new things every day. State has been winning games all season, but no coach is ever satisfied, and Schaefer has seen room for improvement after seemingly every game. The Bulldogs have been good, to be sure, and great at times, but their ceiling hasn’t been met just yet.

However, they were almost there the last time they were on the court, a loss against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament almost two weeks ago.

“For about 26 or 27 minutes against UK,” Schaefer admitted, “we were pretty good.”

MSU was leading the Wildcats by 15 in the second half and looked to be on its way to a dominating victory, but it was around that 26th or 27th minute that Vivians went down with a thumb injury, the scoring fell off and the defense disappeared.

“In my line of work, can’t shoot and can’t defend ain’t good,” Schaefer half-joked.

It was a glimpse, though, of what MSU can do. UK has since been slotted as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, hosting the first two rounds in Lexington. It was a loss, but of the few MSU has, they’ve learned how to get better from them. And certainly, over the course of the year, they’ve learned a few things about winning games.

Now, the postseason begins for MSU, and if they’re going to play their best basketball, this is the time to do it. The pressure of win-or-go-home is old hat for some of the veterans and new for the young pups, but they’ve got to play the games, freshmen and seniors alike. Being nervous isn’t an option.

“I don’t think there’s any room for butterflies,” Vivians said. “We’ve got to come out here and win a game and play our hardest and do our best.”

The regular season was long and the NCAA Tournament promises to be dramatic, but MSU’s next chance to keep proving itself comes tomorrow afternoon in the first round.

“Embrace the grind,” Schaefer said, “because if you don’t, it’ll grind you up.”

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