The buzzwords for Mississippi State basketball at this point in the season are “comfortable” and “confident” in varying doses. The players are getting comfortable with new head Ben Howland and his system. They’re becoming confident, playing close in nearly every game since SEC play began.
And lately, the results have shown it, as the apparently comfortable and confident Bulldogs are 2-1 in their last three games and playing a vastly improved brand of basketball in their last five. Among the many factors in play, one of the keys for this sudden burst of comfort and confidence has been the quick cohesion of a new starting lineup and a man-to-man defense.
In particular, the immediate chemistry of freshmen Malik Newman and Quinndary Weatherspoon has been leading the charge. Weatherspoon, previously a two-guard, was put into the starting lineup as, basically, a power forward five games ago against Tennessee. In the time since earning that role, he leads the team with 18.4 points per game, just a little ahead of Newman’s 15.6 points per game in the same stretch.
It’s the last three games, however, where the combo of the star freshmen has really shined. Over that stretch, including wins against Ole Miss and Missouri, the duo has combined for 38 points per game, checking in at 19.7 per game for Newman and 18.3 for Weatherspoon. It’s no surprise the Bulldogs are 2-1 in that time.
In fact, even though the two only recently broke out, they are still the third-highest scoring duo in the Southeastern Conference this season, both players in double figures. The pair being in the starting lineup is actually a reunion of days past in high school when they played travel ball together as seniors. Weatherspoon believes the chemistry from those days has returned in Starkville.
“I think we do kind of feed off each other,” he said. “Last summer, when we played together, it was kind of the same thing. We got hot around the same time and we finally just connected. I think that chemistry is coming back.”
Now, certainly, Newman and Weatherspoon are good players on their own, neither dependent on the other to do well. And they are by no means the only members of their team showing improvement. Fellow freshman Aric Holman, as Howland has pointed out, is improving rapidly. Senior Travis Daniels had, perhaps, the best game of his season at Missouri on Saturday.
Senior Gavin Ware remains one of the best forwards in the SEC, while junior IJ Ready stands as one of the most underrated players on the roster. Senior Craig Sword is learning to fight through pain, senior Johnny Zuppardo has carved out a role for himself and senior Fred Thomas has been one of the Bulldogs’ steadiest defenders.
Things are clicking not just for one or two guys, but for the entire team and for a coaching staff seeing rapid improvement on the court. Holman, back in action after missing the entire non-conference portion of the season, has seen the difference in practice before the games.
“In practice, it’s more of a competition instead of a walkthrough,” he said. “A day before the game, you’re not just going to see us going through plays. [Howland] is going to split up the teams and see who really wants it the most.”
Most importantly, he added, “we’re all on one page now and we understand everything.”
As the team has grown and figured themselves out, it seems Newman and Weatherspoon have been biggest beneficiaries. Howland, when asked about it, was unsurprised by their recent performances. Typically, he said, you see the biggest improvement in players late in their freshman years. Right on cue, it’s happening for the two freshmen who were able to play from day one, and it’s made quite the difference to the team as a whole.
For Weatherspoon, he said it began when MSU hosted Texas A&M in The Hump for the conference opener. That was the moment when he not only realized how tough SEC play would be, but discovered that he was good enough and prepared enough to play at that level. A change came, as well, when he continued to show such a natural ability to get rebounds that Howland, who had previously prohibited the guard from crashing the boards, set him loose to go after missed shots on both ends.
“He will never not rebound the rest of his career here, even if he is the two,” Howland said days after Weatherspoon’s 14-rebound performance at Missouri. “He does a great job. He has a nose for the ball … He’s doing everything tougher. He’s our best screener right now. That’s saying something. That’s all toughness. He’s tough. That’s why he’s improving and getting better.”
For Newman, the ability was there from day one, but the comfort – and health – has come with time. Though it’s not as if he were a slouch before this recent outbreak. In fact, the 52 three-pointers he’s made this season are currently the fourth-most all time by a freshman at MSU. Those numbers have been aided greatly by his recent hot streak, going 16-of-26 from three in his last three games.
With a favorable stretch to close out the regular season – six of their final 10 games are at home – the rolling Bulldogs appear set up to continue what they’ve been doing, riding the tails of comfort and confidence. Even if wins haven’t come as often as losses at times, they feel like they’re turning – and have already turned – a corner in the first year of this new regime.
“We’ve been right there in every game,” Howland said. “We’re probably a little better than our record, at least in my mind.”