Happy New Year and happy new season, too, as Ben Howland put it. Mississippi State basketball starts SEC play tonight, hosting Texas A&M in The Hump, the start of the second “season within a season” for Howland and the Bulldogs.
While so many of us were away Belking and Christmasing the last few weeks, MSU quietly went on a nice run to end the non-conference slate, going 6-2 in the last eight games and winning the last three in a row.
With a few weeks of news to catch up on and a big game tonight, we’ll run this as more of a notebook-style approach, reviewing some of the newsy nuggets of the day for MSU basketball.
Start of Conference Play
Obvious thing is obvious, but as SEC play begins, the level of competition rises significantly. Of 18 conference games, 12 of them are against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. That provides both an opportunity to boost the resume and a challenge in facing some good teams.
“The level of play with our opponents is really, really ramped up,” Howland said Tuesday. “It’s a great conference. You look around this league and the quality of the institutions and basketball programs and the history of everything … It’s exciting to be part of such a great league, which is part of why I was so excited to be coaching Mississippi State.”
Bulldogs Coming Together
As the start to SEC play approaches, it comes at a time when MSU is playing its best basketball of the season, so far. With several new players, a new style of play and a new coaching staff, it took some time for players to start getting comfortable. But now, it seems something has clicked. Much of it has to do with health, plus the time together and the emergence of Gavin Ware as one of the best forwards in the SEC, perhaps even in the country, based on the early numbers.
“Everybody has come together a lot better here in the last few weeks,” Howland said of the recent 6-2 run. “It’s a combination of the above. I think we’re getting a better feel for how we have to play and kind of giving ourselves a better chance at success.”
Ware Breaking Out, Newman Getting into Groove
Two of the biggest reasons for that success are Ware and freshman Malik Newman. Starting with Ware, the senior is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game (both team highs) and is also tied for the team lead with 16 blocks.
His production is helping MSU score, of course, and State is actually second in the SEC in field goal efficiency, largely due to Ware’s shot selection and goal-scoring in the post as he’s shooting 70.4 percent from the field. Additionally, his success around the rim has opened things up in the rest of the court for teammates, including Newman. I plan to have a more length story on Ware in the near future, but for now, some quick thoughts from Howland.
“We can’t get him enough touches. Part of that is he’s got to keep working hard to seal,” Howland said. “I think he’s getting better at sealing and really demanding the ball inside. People are going to cover down. People are going to try to double him and that opens it up when he kicks the ball back out.”
As for Newman, he is second on the team averaging 13.3 points per game. In his last five games, however, he’s scored in double figures every time, averaging 16 points per outing. Since becoming healthy, his game has improved significantly, something Howland has seen very clearly.
“I think he’s shooting the ball real well right now and really getting in a groove where he’s waiting and letting the offense come to him,” Howland said. “He’s creating well for others. He passed the ball well. Part of it is just the experience of getting used to playing at a different level and playing with new teammates.”
Rick Stansbury Returns to The Hump
With Texas A&M coming to town, tonight is the first time back in The Hump for Rick Stansbury, the A&M assistant coach who, as you know, is the former MSU head coach and the winningest head coach in school history. If anyone thought it was going to be awkward at all, it appears MSU has squashed that possibility. The program and the entire department has made a point in the lead-up to this game to show how happy they are to welcome to Stansbury back to the place where he helped build MSU basketball into what it’s known as today.
In fact, as Howland told reporters, there is an addition to the Mize Pavilion honoring three former coaches, and Stansbury is among them, as well as Babe McCarthy and Richard Williams.
“I think I made it really clear how much respect I have for Rick Stansbury and all that he’s given to Mississippi State University and the basketball program,” Howland said. “I’m excited for Rick. He gave his heart and soul to this place and I hope the fans that are at the game will come early and be there to honor him.”
The ceremony honoring Stansbury is expected to take place roughly 15 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. tip.