The goal of the offseason is to get better. Obviously.
The goal of a new coaching staff is, again, to get better. Clearly.
With those two combining the last couple months, it seems Mississippi State basketball is doing exactly what those around the program have wanted it to: gotten better.
“It already feels different now,” senior guard Craig Sword told reporters last week, speaking for the first time all summer.
Sword, as one might imagine, appears as if he will be one of the big benefactors of Ben Howland’s hiring as MSU’s new head coach, as well as the arrival of heralded freshman point guard Malik Newman.
If the goal of the offseason is obvious – get better – then the goal of a game of basketball is even more obvious – score more points than the other team. Sword has been the offensive catalyst for MSU the past few years, but to hear him talk, things are changing for the better in that regard.
“Everybody can score the ball,” Sword said when asked about the pressure on him to fill the basket. “It’s going to feel great knowing I’m not the only one that everybody is focused on now.”
Newman’s presence is a big part of that, as are the arrivals of fellow freshmen Quinndary Weatherspoon and Aric Holman. Even last week when Howland was out of town recruiting, Sword, Newman and the gang were getting together after hours to put shots up, scrimmage and get to know each other both on the floor and off.
Through those hours together, it’s become apparent that Sword isn’t the only one who will benefit.
Howland has said more than once since his arrival in Starkville that one person in particular he wants more action for is senior forward Gavin Ware. Ware needs more touches, more shots, more opportunities, says Howland. Like his fellow senior Sword, Ware appears ready to benefit from a new style, as well as the infusion of scoring talent around him with guards who can shoot, drive and pass at will.
“I absolutely love it when we have scorers out there,” said Ware, who has dropped weight and says he’s the most fit he’s ever been at MSU, “because it takes the pressure off me, so when I get the ball I don’t have to worry about double-teams and triple-teams. I can just get the ball in the post, take a deep breath, make my move and be in position to score. And I can sink in the defense to give my teammates room to score.”
Good ol’ win-win for Ware and his teammates.
Turns out, it’s not just the guys on the court who are noticing that things are changing for the Bulldogs. Non-MSU people around the country aren’t filling up the bandwagon quite yet, but at least a few are readying themselves to jump on when the time comes. One national college basketball writer considers MSU one of the top-five teams in the SEC this year, despite the fact they finished 12th in the league last season. The same person tabbed specific Bulldogs as breakout candidates, All-SEC picks and under-the-radar performers.
Quietly, expectations and excitement are already building.
The players don’t talk about it too much themselves, and asking the individual in question only leads to well-worded non-answers deflecting praise, but the underlying reason for all the optimism and expectation is Newman, a player expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft this time next summer. He knows it himself, and while he’d rather not talk too much about it, he embraces the pressure and is constantly training for the moment he gets to start performing.
“I think we’re going to be one of the teams that’s slept on next year,” Newman said, “but I think we’ll make a lot of noise. All the guys are excited about this year. I can see the level rising up each and every week. Guys are getting better, we’re getting stronger.”
New strength coach David Deets has been more aptly titled MSU’s Director of Basketball Performance. His concern isn’t how much his players can bench or squat or how many down-and-backs they have to run at the end of every practice. His focus is on training their bodies for what they do – play basketball.
Strength. Agility. How to plant. How to move efficiently. How to get explosive. Weekly sand training, a stringent nutrition program and yoga twice a week for recovery. MSU is doing a little bit of everything under Deets and players are already reaping the rewards of working with him.
Newman, who has gained 10 pounds of muscle in his short time on campus, said his teammates are actually excited about working out, a great sign for their mental approach.
“If guys are excited to be in the weight room, I know they’re excited to be on the court,” he said, discussing the strength training. “That’s something I know I need with all the big, strong guys in the SEC. I’m taking the weight room very seriously right now.”
Nearly every member of the team has put on at least 10 pounds of muscle – Ware, who gives text message updates to Deets after every meal he eats, being the exception – including a full 20 pounds in roughly a month by forward Fallou Ndoye. The most impressive part? Every single player has improved their vertical jump, too. The weight their putting on is good, and the agility exercises are paying off quickly.
“Guys are getting stronger,” Deets said. “You can tell on the floor that they’re getting better movements than they were able to before, so we’re actually getting better at movement patterns that are going to translate to the floor.”
Summer isn’t even over, but the team is counting down the days until the games begin in November. If they’re to be believed, everyone else should be, too.
“Go get your tickets, your season tickets, all types of tickets, whatever you can get,” Ware said as his interview came to a close. “This is going to be an exciting year.”