So, things happened kind of fast for Ben Howland. On January 3, his team opened SEC play by losing by 10 points to Alabama at home. Then, in a span of three days, his Mississippi State team scored 179 points in two games, beating LSU and Arkansas both on the road by a combined 23 points. One week, January 3-10, separated the beginning and end of that three-game stretch, but to watch them play, it‘s as if years have gone by. Or months, at least.
Credit the players for their resiliency and talent, then credit Howland for avoiding the stubbornness that can often plague head coaches in any sport. Over the course of a couple practices, Howland totally revamped his starting lineup, leading to a six-day turnaround for his Bulldogs.
Of course, it’s the same roster Howland had in that first game against Alabama, but changes in how he used that roster paid off very quickly. Now, MSU did well in the non-conference schedule, finishing that portion of the year with a 9-3 record. Things weren’t going poorly. But a new lineup helped move the needle a lot closer to the “great” end.
When MSU took the floor against LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday, the senior point guard wasn’t in the lineup. Neither was the team’s sharpshooting freshman guard. Nor, either, was the recently-returned sophomore guard who had earned a start in just his second game back.
The starting five were, 1-5, freshman point guard Lamar Peters, sophomore guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (of course), freshman guard/forward Mario Kegler (who had been at the four), sophomore forward Aric Holman (who had been at the five) and freshman forward Schnider Herard.
Or, to put it in different terms, they were 6’0”, 6’4”, 6’7”, 6’10” and 6’10”.
“I just thought, in terms of our size, it would get us off to hopefully a better start on the backboards, which has been an Achilles heel all season,” Howland later said.
And it did work. It worked well, as a matter of fact.
“It was easier to rebound,” Holman confirmed.
Said Howland, “It helps us to be bigger, especially at the onset of games when we’re trying to establish ourselves rebounding.”
The benefits have extended beyond rebounding, though. That lineup has been troublesome for opponents and advantageous for MSU, but it’s not just the length. As Howland pointed out to reporters, it puts every player at their natural position. Holman is a tall guy, but he’s more suited to play the four, where his athleticism and shooting ability can be highlighted on offense and his shot blocking ability can be best utilized on defense. Kegler, too, is a sizable human, but his talent is more naturally suited to the three, where his ball skills both on the dribble and as a passer can be used with more frequency.
Then the quick-footed Peters and the gigantic-footed Herard complement each other well at the one and five, respectively. Weatherspoon, of course, seems to be good no matter where he plays on the floor, but the two guard is his preferred locale.
“It helps to play Aric, Mario and Q all at their natural positions,” Howland said.
What it also helps are the options for substitutions off the bench. Senior point guard I.J. Ready took the change in stride (“At this point, I just want to win,” he said), and it’s his reliability that helps tie this whole thing together. With such a young lineup on the floor, Ready is the man who can come in to help get the game going in the right direction if things start to falter. And, as Howland likes to do, Ready can be on the floor at the same time as Peters, helping transition the lineup from long and strong to quick and dangerous with the blow of a whistle.
With the right subs, Howland can adjust to just about any moment. Need leadership to pull things back together, or a reliable late-game ball handler and free throw shooter? Send in Ready. Need a spark behind the arc or on the offensive glass? Enter the sharpshooting freshman Tyson Carter. Need some energy and athleticism? Xavian Stapleton. Hard minutes in the paint? E.J. Datcher.
And so on and so forth; Howland, in a rather short period of time, has set himself up to have an answer for just about everything.
“Coach Howland does a great job subbing and utilizing all his weapons at the right time,” Ready said. “The lineup we started off with [against LSU] was great.”
MSU is still a young team, certainly, and their lack of depth in some positions remains a concern for Howland. However, this group has grown up fast. It’s rare to have a new-look team in the middle of the season, but the Bulldogs have pulled it off.