Eleven lessons learned in Italy with MSU basketball

Twice in Italy, Mississippi State took games against professional basketball teams into overtime. On both occasions, Ben Howland’s team won. Most impressively, one of those wins came against the national team of Kosovo, a group made up of, as one MSU player observed, some “real, grown men.“ Real, grown men who, for example, were All-Conference players in the United States in college; real, grown men who, for example, had contracts in the millions to play professionally; real, grown men who, for example, were named MVP of the Spanish professional basketball league.

howlandAnd MSU beat them. To my surprise, if I’m being honest. After three wins against teams with varying levels of talent, size and skill, Kosovo was by far the hardest test the Bulldogs had to face, a team made up of real-deal stars, the best the entire country had to offer. That was a game the Bulldogs were expected to lose, and it would have been no big deal had they done so. One missed free throw in regulation and they would have, though it still would have been impressive to have competed so closely.

But they won. They won that game just like they did every other game in Italy, a perfect 4-0 record. The story in that is as much about mindset as it is about talent. People often use the expression “They don’t know how to win” about a team that consistently loses close games. Watching some of the tight losses MSU has had in recent years, one might have said that applied to the Bulldogs from time to time. But Howland is changing that. Perhaps after watching two overtime wins in Italy, I shouldn’t even use the present progressive form of the verb change. Make it past tense. It appears he already has changed it.

Some teams don’t know how to win. This team doesn’t know how to lose. The roster is completely revamped with only three returning players, two of them sophomores. Once senior point guard I.J. Ready got sick, it was down to a dozen freshmen and two sophomores in Europe. And all of them were people who aren’t used to losing, who don’t ever believe they’re going to lose.

Those freshmen were part of the best signing class in MSU history, and the reason is clear. They are incredibly talented. They’re young, of course, but man are they fun to watch play basketball. And because they’re so good, they’ve tended to win at a high rate. It’s what they’re used to.

It’s not just them, though, and Italy wasn’t even the first time. In the big picture, it began when Howland was hired and moved to Starkville. The movement started then. The first ball dropped, very literally, six months ago, shot from the corner when Quinndary Weatherspoon drilled a three at the buzzer to give MSU a win over Vanderbilt. It was the highlight play of the entire athletic year.

Howland is creating – excuse me, has created – a culture of winning. The process is ongoing, of course, and there will be growing pains along the way with such a young team, but the development of Mississippi State basketball is clear, even if it took traveling halfway across the world to get a good look at it.

Walking back to the bus after MSU won it’s first game against a Lithuanian national team, I was talking to freshman guard Eli Wright, who shot 8-of-9 from the field in the win. I told him the team looked so much bigger than it has in recent years, that it has so many great shooters and so many impressive athletes. He smiled, then gave me a knowing look.

“That’s Coach Howland,” was all he said.

It was all he needed to say.

———————–

As you’ve surmised by now, I spent roughly two weeks in Italy (and a few hours in Switzerland, to boot) traveling with MSU’s basketball team as they played four games against international teams. For full game recaps with quotes, scores and stats, check out hailstate.com/mensbasketball.

What I’ll share here are 10 Things I Think, 10 observations from getting an early and exclusive look at year two under Ben Howland.

  1. I think Quinndary Weatherspoon is going to have a monster second year.

q 2Ben Howland has often said that the most development a player ever has is between his freshman and sophomore years. Weatherspoon may end up being his best example of that school of thought, which is impressive considering how strong his freshman year was to begin with. Q scored over 80 points in four games, and did so with limited minutes against the weakest opponent and while battling through pain against Kosovo. The biggest obvious change is his confidence. He knows it’s his team now, and he knows how good he is and can be.

2. I think MSU is going to win a lot of games it “shouldn’t” this season.

People won’t be expecting much of the Bulldogs, but the Bulldogs will be expecting a great deal of themselves. With the confidence this team has, they’ll go into every game believing they’re going to win. With their talent, I’d hazard a guess that they’ll be right more often than not.

  1. I think Ben Howland is one of the best developers of talent on the Mississippi State campus.

You can check out a longer story I wrote from Florence for more details on this, but seeing the improvement in individual players and the team as a whole from game to game (and having the inside peek of practice to see how it was done) was incredibly impressive.

  1. I think I’m planting a symbolic flag on the career of freshman guard Eli Wright.

Howland often said last year how much he wishes he could have had more time with Craig Sword to develop him. I think he has that chance with Wright, who reminds a lot of people of a younger Chicken, and perhaps with an even better jump shot as a freshman. Wright is smart, focused and works extremely hard, having developed that jump shot seemingly out of nowhere. He can create, he can shoot, he can rebound and he has great vision. I was impressed.

  1. I think freshman forward Schnider Herard is going to be immensely valuable to this team, even if the stats don’t always show it.

Herard’s best game came when it was needed the most against Kosovo. They were the biggest and most physical team MSU played, and they needed their biggest and most physical guy to step up, and he absolutely did, scoring 17 and hitting double-digits in rebounds.

“He’s the reason we won that game,” Aric Holman told me after the game as we reviewed the stat sheet, “and he doesn’t even know it.”

Herard is big and talented, certainly, but he’s also a hustle guy, and it was his passion as much as anything that spurred his teammates on against Kosovo. His presence will always be felt, on the court or on the bench.

  1. I think Delta pilots are pretty fantastic.

Granted, it was likely the fault of Delta that our flight was delayed in the first place, as the plane from Milan to Atlanta left three hours later than scheduled. Those who have flown to Starkville and into GTR before know, if you miss that last flight from Atlanta, there’s nothing you can do but find a hotel or take a REALLY expensive cab ride. The pilot of the 10 hour flight out of Italy, the pilot with hundreds of other passengers on board, not only called ahead from somewhere over the Atlantic to ask the Atlanta-Starkville flight to wait for the 32 of us who needed to catch it, but he escorted us through customs and across terminals all the way to our gate, just to make sure we got to our flight on time. Thanks to him, we did.

  1. I think the addition of freshman forward Mario Kegler is going to be a very big piece for this team.

As impressive as the team was in Italy, they did it without one of their best players. Adding an extremely talented four-man who can shoot and create offensively will do wonders to keep teams from focusing on Weatherspoon or any of the team’s new sharpshooters. Speaking of…

  1. I think this team is going to light up the scoreboard.

Stretching back to the early days of Jarvis Varnado, MSU basketball has almost exclusively been dependent on playing good defense and keeping games low-scoring. Howland loves coaching defense, too, but man, this team is going to be able to score. They have so many shooters, and a great deal of variety. Freshman guard Tyson Carter might have been the surprise star of the trip, racking up basket after basket throughout the entire trip, threatening Weatherspoon for the four-game scoring title and even hitting a ¾ court shot at the halftime buzzer in one game. I hate to put this on him as a freshman, but he’s got the kind of pure shooting ability to make me think he could push for Barry Stewart’s career three-pointers record. MSU will score a lot in 2016-17.

  1. I think Lamar Peters is one of the most entertaining players I’ve watched in a long time.

The freshman point guard ended up starting for three out of four games when I.J. Ready got sick, and he performed very well, getting better with each outing. Like all freshmen, he has to develop as he learns what it takes to be a true point guard in the SEC, but even from day one, he is just a ball to watch play. Peters is very much an example of an electric athlete. He is the quickest player on pretty much any court he steps on to and he may very well lead the SEC in broken ankles this year, were such a stat tracked. I saw at least a half dozen would-be defenders fall to the ground as a result of his crossovers.

  1. I think MSU fans should buy tickets now while they still can.

This is probably the part where someone would encourage me to include a link to hailstate.com/tickets. Whatever. My point is that this is going to be an incredibly fun team to watch, and when people start to notice that fact, The Hump is going to fill up much faster and much more often than it has in a while. Win or lose, MSU’s games won’t be boring for a long time to come. Through TV, internet or in person, this is a group that will grab people’s attention.

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