Ben Howland’s team is young. Like, really, really young. By one published measure, the fourth-youngest team in America. Super-duper young.
And that’s not something Howland has in common with them. With a résumé` like his, he’s one of the most experienced and successful coaches in the country. He’s also a little past his own playing days, but that’s unrelated.
What’s important for him, and what will make the biggest of differences as he tries to coach such an inexperienced group, is that Howland has very quickly built a team that looks like him. Rather, he has a roster of young men whose strengths reflect his.
This Mississippi State team, other than being so youthful, is particularly intelligent.
“They have very high basketball IQs,” sophomore All-SEC guard Quinndary Weatherspoon explained.
It’s not surprising if one examines the roster a little more closely, Howland believes. To begin with, in I.J. Ready, he’s got a starting senior point guard – the only upperclassman on the team – who is the son of a basketball coach. Howland also has freshman guard Tyson Carter, the son of former MSU great Greg Carter who is possibly more well-known around Starkville for, you guessed it, being the immensely successful head basketball coach at Starkville High School.
Those two grew up around the game, were raised to understand basketball and to play it not just well, but intelligently.
Then Howland’s freshman class enters ahead of many others across the country not just because of talent – they were part of the best-ranked signing class in MSU history – but because of how well developed they are.
“You have kids who come from good programs,” Howland went on. “For example, [freshman forward] Mario Kegler played at Oak Hill last year for Steve Smith, one of the best high school coaches in the history of high school basketball. He’s further ahead in his understanding than a lot of kids because of who he played for in the program he was in.”
That’s not just Howland bragging on his team. The players see it, too. It’s a team full of high-quality players from high-quality programs. They’re developed, they’re smart and they know basketball.
“I can say that’s very accurate,” sophomore forward Aric Holman confirmed. “We’ve all been on that same level of competition before we came to college, so everybody knows what’s expected to get to the next level.”
A four-star forward out high school and the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, Holman was a state champ his senior year, an accomplishment he has in common with many of his teammates. Ready, Weatherspoon and freshman forward Schnider Herard have eight state championships between them. Carter and freshman forward Joe Strugg both won state titles. Kegler and fellow freshman forward Abdul Ado went so far as to win National Championships.
Beyond just being smart, it’s a team full of guys who know how to win. They’re talented, too. The one knock on them is that they’re young. They’re inexperienced. Only three people on this roster – one senior and two sophomores – have even worn an MSU uniform in a game, and Holman only did it for about half a season after an injury delayed his debut last year.
So yes, they’re going to have some growing pains. Or as Howland put it more succinctly, “We’re gonna make a lot of mistakes this year.”
But the upside for Howland, a man who prides himself on basketball’s nuances, on developing talent and on coaching and preparation, is that his team does reflect some of his greatest qualities – his intelligence and his desire to learn. It’s certainly no accident that he’s built the team this way.
“It makes practice way better,” Weatherspoon said, “because we don’t have to stay on one thing a whole lot of time. They pick it up so fast that we can move on because we’ve got so much to cover and so little time.”
Already, Weatherspoon shared, the newest members of the team have learned where he’s going to be. They’re learning quickly where they’re supposed to be too. They’re getting a hang of the plays, remembering what means what.
“They can hear it and they see it,” Weatherspoon elaborated. “We’re gonna be good, but it’s gonna be tough for us in the non-conference just as they learn to play. When we get into conference play, I think we’re going to be a very good team.”
Weatherspoon and Howland have watched as young pups improve. Kegler has made strides in help defense and coming off screens. Freshman Lamar Peters, Howland said, is learning what it means to be a point guard and how to value possession of the ball. All members of the team are figuring how to shape, hydrate and fuel their bodies.
Improvements are absolutely needed, all will be quick to say, but they are also quick to say the improvements are steadily coming with each passing practice.
Xavian Stapleton is a Mississippi native who once played on the state’s No.1 ranked high school team, and he’s a transfer from Louisiana Tech where he was twice named the conference’s Freshman of the Week. Last year, he sat out for MSU under the NCAA’s transfer eligibility rules. To only be entering his sophomore season, he’s seen a lot of basketball. Because of that, as well as his outgoing personality, he’s quickly become one of the primary leaders on the team, and as he continues his rehab from injury, he’s spent a lot of time observing the young talent.
Stapleton is as impressed as anyone with the new crop of players and how quickly they’re improving, even if he does know there will be some hiccups along the way.
“We’re young, but these young guys can play some basketball,” he said. “They’re smart. They’re real smart. Most of them are advanced. You wouldn’t think they’re freshmen, how they play … They do play intelligent, they do play smart, but again, they’re young.”
‘But they’re young,’ is likely to be a common refrain when the season begins next month. But, the other side of the coin says, they may not always play like it.