Aric Holman and Quinndary Weatherspoon are the old guys on this team. It happened quickly, but now as juniors, they represent the first people to sign on with Ben Howland, believe in what he was doing and commit themselves to seeing his vision become a reality.
Three years ago, they were told they could help return Mississippi State basketball to the spotlight, and when they arrived on campus, they stated that as their goal. It took all of those three years to start seeing the fruits of their labor, but Wednesday night in The Hump – even if it wasn’t the exact tournament they were hoping for – was a return to the postseason for a once-proud program that seems to have found its pride once again.
When Mississippi State hosted Nebraska in the NIT, it was the first postseason game for MSU since Holman and Weatherspoon were in the ninth grade. When the Bulldogs beat the Cornhuskers, it was the first postseason win since they were in middle school. Suffice to say, it’s been a while, and this appearance was both an exhale of relief that the former glory is beginning to return and an inhalation of excitement at what the future holds for a team without a single scholarship senior on the roster.
“It means a lot, knowing that we haven’t been in the postseason in I don’t know how long,” Weatherspoon said. “It feels great to be in the postseason. We didn’t get it done my first two years here. This means we’re moving forward. Hopefully we can keep building and building.”
That’s the idea, according to Howland. This is the third time he’s been in the NIT, having done it once each in his head coaching stops at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh. Now, just as then, he of course wishes his team could’ve won just another game or two and found its way to the NCAA Tournament. But for a program that appears to be on its way back up, and with a roster full of young talent, Howland knows how meaningful these do-or-die postseason experiences can be.
“It’s definitely helping us now,” he said. “To have 23 wins now, with an opportunity to get 24 and keep advancing in the postseason, it’s huge. Guys are getting a taste of what it’s like to play beyond the SEC Tournament. We’re very disappointed that the three didn’t go down with four seconds to go against Tennessee and give us a chance to keep advancing and have a chance to be in the NCAA Tournament. But this is definitely a positive for our team, our program.”
Much of what it means to the program comes in the opportunity to give fans something to cheer for, something to buy into. That’s why Howland has spent many of his free nights visiting fraternities and sororities on campus, giving away cheese fries in the Cotton District or filming videos asking for support. He’s known they were building toward something special, and he wanted to bring the fans back into the fold.
The team knows that MSU is a fanbase that has been patiently – and sometimes impatiently – waiting for something to cheer for, something to be proud of. There were hints and sparks of such a thing the last couple years, and finally, as so-often happens for Howland, year three launched a more serious movement and a collection of victories and performances that had people excited again, if not cautiously so. And that’s not to say there weren’t lows, but for what felt like the first time in a while, there were more than enough highs to support continuous optimism.
Lamar Peters, the sophomore point guard who racked up 14 assists in Wednesday’s game, knows how badly so many thousands of people have been waiting for something like this.
“It was a very big win,” he said. “It’s always a big deal to advance to the postseason. It’s been a long time since it’s happened in Starkville so we just wanted to come out and not be flat and get the victory and have the Starkville community be happy for something in men’s basketball.”
To be sure, this is not a settling point in the short or long-term senses. MSU isn’t happy enough to have won a single postseason game and call it quits for the this year. Nor do they have the desire to be in the NIT again any time soon. The NCAA Tournament is the goal moving forward, and winning games there will be the new yearly standard. But, like anything, there are steps to be taken, and this postseason is a big one.
“Every year, we’re progressing and becoming a better program and better team and just improving every moment we can. It’s headed in the right direction,” Holman said. “We’ve improved a lot [since] Q and I first got here. Now, guys are buying in and wanting to be a part of something great instead of just wanting to be an average team.”