Saturday afternoon at The Hump, while his Bulldogs had the lead and were on their way to winning back-to-back games, Travis Daniels got the first breakaway of his career. The senior forward for Mississippi State’s basketball team seemed to realize what was happening around the time he hit mid-court. No one was in front of him, no one was going to catch him, and he had the length of the floor to figure out what he was going to do.
Those watching could see the gears turning in his head, pondering the decision: should he go simple and just lay the ball in the basket, or go for the big dunk in front of the home crowd? Around the three-point line, his eyes went wide as the choice was made. Just past the free throw line, Daniels lifted off. One leg extended fully, sending him upward to the basket. His right arm flared out with the ball in his hand. As he coasted through the air, that arm ripped back in a perfect half circle toward the basket, slamming the ball home as Daniels came to the floor with knees bent, a smile on his face and his head nodding in excitement, soaking in the cheers of the home crowd.
The first breakaway of his career was also one of the first – but many – signs of what’s happening with this team: they’re having fun. They’re jelling. Big picture, things are clicking.
In postgame interviews after MSU beat UT Martin 76-51 Saturday, Daniels and his teammates were laughing with each other, coming off confident and at ease – qualities they haven’t exactly been known for in recent years.
“I actually have fun,” senior forward Gavin Ware said. “Being with my teammates, we crack jokes, but we stay focused.”
Ware’s performance, too, has been an integral part of what his team has done early on this year under new head coach Ben Howland. The Starkville native has changed his body, gotten into peak condition to play on both ends of the floor, and as a result, he’s averaging 20 points per game and is looking like an All-SEC type of player.
He’s among the team leaders in time spent on the court, playing 30 minutes per game, and is still making an impact on both sides of the floor, leading the team in rebounds (7.4 per game) and blocks (nine total), as well.
But the most noticeable stride has been in his scoring. More specifically, his shooting, as he’s connected on 71 percent of his shots from the field. In fact, Howland told reporters that in MSU’s last three practices before Saturday, Ware was a combined 25-of-26 from the field.
“So we were a little let down he missed three shots today,” Howland joked Saturday. “It’s incredible how good he is around the basket.”
That effectiveness has opened things up for his teammates, too. Howland specifically mentioned a moment Saturday when Ware got the ball in the post, found that he was double-teamed and made a perfect skip pass to the high wing where the open man nailed an easy three-pointer. The offense is running through Ware, and that seems to be working pretty well.
MSU has a spark off the bench, as well, in the smooth freshman Quinndary Weatherspoon who was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday after going a perfect 6-of-6 for 16 points on Saturday. Weatherspoon’s offensive ability is natural and Howland said he’s been seeing the guard improve on the defensive end, as well, which will only lead to a greater role for the talented freshman.
Weatherspoon doesn’t have the volume of field goal attempts many of his teammates do, but he’s second behind only Ware with a 57 percent success rate shooting the ball. He’s got room to improve on defense, to be sure, but part of the way Howland is helping Weatherspoon work on that is by forcing him to go up against the team’s best offensive guard in practice.
Last week, after the team returned from Puerto Rico, Weatherspoon was charged with going 1-on-1 with senior guard Craig Sword. Reportedly, the competition got intense.
“I mean, they were going at it,” Howland said. “That’s how guys get better. That’s making each of them better, the competition in practice.”
And yes, the team as a whole is getting better, even as two of its most talented pieces are getting back into form after offseason injuries, with Sword and touted freshman Malik Newman still yet to hit their ceilings. The time for that may be close, though, as Howland noted Sword actually had a triple-double in a team scrimmage last week while Newman’s confidence in his shot is growing daily.
“[Sword] is going to break out,” he said. “Malik is going to shoot the ball better. We just want to keep improving.”
Much of that improvement has to be defensively, though, and Howland thinks his team has made strides in that department lately. They’re switching off screens better, learning to defend without fouling and blocking out more consistently.
If those areas continue to improve, so too will the team. The offensive side expects a boost, as well, as Howland said they will implement more offensive sets after the team gets through finals next week.
MSU still isn’t where they want to be, but they’ve made it a long way from where they were and their best is certainly yet to come.
“We still have so much room where we can grow and improve,” Howland said. “If we can play good defense, take care of the ball and share it, we have a chance to be good.”
Said Daniels, “I feel like we’re getting into a rhythm. We’ve just got to get used to winning, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”