Ben Howland lives in the details. Not in a way to suggest he needs organization to function – though disorganization is almost certainly among his pet peeves – but in the sense that he builds his knowledge on details. He sees the forest because of the trees.
As his team tours through Italy on a four-game exhibition trip for Mississippi State basketball, the head coach of the Bulldogs has shown what it is that’s made him so successful in his career as a builder of programs and players – the details.
His style as a coach comes very much from his natural tendencies as a person, exhibited on a regular basis throughout Rome and Florence and their collective museums, towers and cathedrals. The trip is for the team, for the young roster to develop chemistry, to play other opponents and to experience new cultures and see history in person. However, seemingly none have been as excited away from the court in Italy as Howland. On each of the many guided tours, he is rapt with attention, carefully making sure he takes in every word, often turning to his players to ask if they heard what was said, repeating some interesting tidbit of information on the Sistine Chapel or Il Duomo or even Michelangelo’s statue of David.
Intentional or not, Howland has found himself standing right next to the guide by the end of every tour, asking question after question as the group walks behind them. In one instance he even asked the guide if she would take he and his family to a nearby area he wanted to learn about, the famed Piazza della Signoria in Florence.
In those questions Howland asks, he is seeking information. The Whos, the Whats, the Wheres, Whens and Whys. In one instance, he wants to know more about the Medici family, ancient bankers who warred with Michelangelo and controlled much of the direction of the country.
In museums and churches, he wants to know the names of the artists, the names of their works, why their works were given that name and what inspired those works to begin with.
Outside the entrance to the town hall of Florence is mounted a large re-creation of Michelangelo’s David. Opposite that statue stands another marble creation, that one of a man of strong build and stature holding a club with a smaller man cowed on his knees before him. Merely 20 yards away, in front of a museum, stands the famous Bernini sculpture Howland had come to see, one he had learned about on the previous tour. But Howland needed to know who the other statue was, the one he did not know or recognize. In this square, the Piazza della Signoria, containing statues of famous men created by famous men, Howland needed to know the name of the anonymous Adonis with a club.
Howland couldn’t see the whole square until he saw each part of it. Or because he saw the whole square, he wanted to see each part of it, to trace the lines of the puzzle pieces. His big picture, just as with the eyes of the artist, is seen in the individual strokes of the brush.
Ben Howland lives in the details, and because of that, he coaches in them, too.
Few head coaches are as hands-on in running their practices as Howland, regularly switching sides of the court to work with guards or forwards. The assistants are running each drill their players go through, while Howland observes, notes and teaches, often stepping in to coach an individual on technique or to physically provide an example of what needs to be done.
Howland enthusiastically sets picks against men one-and-a-half times his size, happily runs through drills with his players and regularly rolls off screens himself.
And then he explains why. He doesn’t just want his players to know what they’re doing. He needs them to understand why. And The Why is in the details.
Saturday afternoon, Florence
“I’ve never seen you jump so high,” Howland says.
Leaning against the wall of the Galleria dell’Accademia – home of The David – Joe Strugg looks at the ground and sheepishly smiles.
Strugg, because of a stress fracture in his leg last year, hasn’t played in a single game for MSU. The rangy, athletic forward is finally healthy, finally practicing, and finally ready to put on a jersey and play after having to redshirt his first year on campus. The night before in Rome, Strugg did just that, albeit in an exhibition against a Lithuanian pro team.
Strugg played well in that game, a fact not escaping Howland’s notice, particularly as he finds himself needing depth in the post.
“You’re going to play more minutes in our next game,” Howland says, this time more seriously. “You’re going to rebound and you’re going to defend.”
Sunday afternoon, Florence
Nearing the end of their practice, MSU is doing halfcourt five-on-five to review the sets they went over all practice. Strugg has been noticeably putting forth extra effort the full time, paying extra attention to Howland in the moments he comes to the forwards’ side of the court, mimicking his coach when he shows him what angle to take on a screen and making eye contact as he listens intently before mentally running himself through reps of what he just learned when Howland walks away.
But now, as the team is playing five-on-five, Strugg is having difficulty remembering which of all the moving bodies are the ones he’s supposed to screen and supposed to screen for.
Howland calls out and brings the motion to a halt.
“If the ball goes here,” Howland says to Strugg, pointing to a player out on the perimeter as he walks into the middle of the fray, “where do you go?”
Strugg thinks for a moment, eager to show his coach he deserves the extra minutes he promised. He then points to a spot a few feet away.
“You got it,” Howland says. “Your screen opens him up and it gives you the lane,” Howland continues, pointing again as he explains The Why after demonstrating The What.
“Let’s do it again.”
This time, Strugg nails it.
Socrates may have been Greek, but his method is still effective in this Italian gym on the land of ancient Rome.
Monday night, Florence
It’s game day, the second of MSU’s tour of Europe. The Bulldogs are playing another Lithuanian pro team and Strugg is eager for his chance to get his minutes and prove his worth.
Midway through the third quarter, MSU’s bench erupts in cheers and clapping for the result of a play on the offensive end.
Moments before, when the ball was passed around the perimeter, Strugg sprinted to the top of the key and planted himself on the back side of the Lithuanian defender guarding the ball. When the point guard ran free thanks to the perfectly set pick, Strugg rolled in the appropriate direction, turning inside toward the lane, and saw that the man responsible for guarding him had left to cover the recently-freed point guard. The man responsible for the point guard was trapped behind Strugg, no angle to defend a pass. So, when Strugg turned and caught the pass that immediately came, he streaked through the open paint and into the air to bring home a thunderous one-handed slam.
“It was the exact play we worked on in practice,” assistant coach Ernie Zeigler confirmed after the game.
Moments like that are why this trip is so valuable to MSU, to Howland, as so many new pieces come together. Little breakthroughs in practice lead to big breakthroughs in games. The more trees, the bigger the forest, and Howland cherishes every chance to plant a seed.
The unknown statue in the square outside town hall turned out to be a name Howland had heard plenty before – it was a monument to Hercules, sculpted to show his strength following his eradication of the fire-breathing monster Cacus.
The statues of Hercules and David flank the entrance to the palatial town hall, meant to signify spiritual power (David) and physical power (Hercules) joining to give the city dominance and success. Certainly, the symbolism wasn’t lost on Howland as he lays his plan to build a college basketball power.