Hall Of Fame Enshrinement A Surreal Accomplishment For Greg Carter

This weekend, the MSU Sports Hall of Fame inducts five new members. Each day this week, we’ll be highlighting one of those individuals in this space.

Scott Stricklin can’t help smiling when he sees Tyson Carter on campus, the long, skinny freshman sharpshooter preparing for his first season on the basketball team. Now the Athletic Director at Mississippi State, Stricklin remembers when he was a student at MSU over two decades ago and a similar-looking freshman basketball player got to school – Greg Carter, Tyon’s dad.

“I was in school with Greg,” Stricklin said, “and it’s so funny seeing Tyson now, because I remember Greg being this really skilled, thin player who came in with a big freshman class.”

The story of the son and his freshman class has yet to be written, but the tale of the father has been told for the last 25 years. This weekend, Carter’s career will be celebrated when he is enshrined in the MSU Sports Hall of Fame, an earned honor for the man who was recently selected to MSU basketball’s All-Century Team.

An All-SEC and honorable mention All-American as a senior, Carter ranks in MSU’s all-time lists in points (1,123), rebounds (611), steals (115) and blocks (53). His numbers are great for those interested in such things, and his careers as a player at MSU and now the head coach of Starkville High School boys basketball have been littered with successes and highlights. However, it is the accomplishment he’s the most remembered for that he, too, remembers most fondly.

In 1991, at the end of his four years at MSU, Carter realized the goal he and his teammates had given themselves years before – they won the SEC Championship.

“It stands out a lot,” Carter said of that memory. “Through four years of college ball, 23 years of coaching, it stands out more than any of them.”

When Carter initially began at MSU, he was one of seven signees in that first class, and at the time, he considered himself a defender and rebounder, his prowess on the offensive side coming later in his career. The state of the program had been up and down for the last couple decades, but Carter and his new teammates went in believing that they could change the fortunes of MSU basketball.

“There was a large group of us that signed as freshmen together,” he recalled. “There were seven of us, and our goal was to win an SEC Championship by our senior year.”

They took baby steps, at first, experiencing some growing pains along the way. But as Carter progressed, so too did the team. And by the end, they achieved their dream.

Carter wasn’t the leading scorer for that team as a senior, nor was he the guy opposing coaches and players were worried about the most. He wasn’t even the one fans were most excited to get an autograph from after the games. But as Stricklin remembers it, that suited Carter just fine. In fact, it worked perfectly for him.

“He was the glue guy, in my opinion, on that 1991 title team,” Stricklin said. “He was the silent assassin, if you will. You were paying attention to Cameron Burns or Tony Watts or one of the other guys that were so effective. Greg Carter was the guy that was just Steady Eddie. You look up and he has 20 points and 10 boards and got every key loose ball and played good defense. To me, he was the epitome of that team.”

Carter was named first-team All-SEC that year, but it was a similar honor that likely described his value best – the SEC all-defensive team.

Not say he couldn’t shoot, of course. Carter actually led the team in field goal percentage as a senior, hitting 56.5 percent of his shots, and his versatility as a scorer, getting baskets both inside the paint and behind the arc, helped make him such a dangerous player for opposing teams.

The hard part for him now is believing he was ever actually that good at basketball.

“It’s been really in the last few years that I’ve been able to get perspective on not just what the team did, but what individuals did, all of us, and what I did as an individual,” he said. “When you start getting older, you look at those things like, ‘Wow, did I really do all that?’”

Carter confessed he often has the same reaction as his players when they look him up and discover how great his career at MSU was.

“Whenever they see my name in the record books they’re always like, ‘Coach, you did that? You were pretty good.’ So you kind of end up looking at yourself in the same way,” Carter said.

Of course, one of his players knew how great his coach was the minute he walked into his first practice – his son Tyson. As early as middle school, Tyson was watching tapes from the 1991 championship season and studying a highlight reel of his dad’s play from that year.

The rest of the guys on the team were allowed to discover on their own, but Coach Carter made very sure to show his son what his old man was capable of in college.

Lining the walls of the concourse at Humphrey Coliseum, home of MSU basketball, stand trophy cases and displays honoring the members of the Hall of Fame. Starting this week, Tyson will be playing in the same building where his father is enshrined.

Funnily enough, Carter has memories of seeing those same sights 25 years ago.

“I remember walking through The Hump and seeing the display of all the people who were in the Hall of Fame,” he said, “and I never thought or dreamed that I would end up in there.”

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Dan Mullen Press Conference Live Blog: South Carolina

In week two, Mississippi State trades South Alabama for South Carolina, opening SEC play on Saturday night at 6 in Davis Wade Stadium against the Gamecocks.

Dan Mullen will address the media for his weekly press conference today at 1 p.m. Updates to follow.


And he’s here. Let’s get rolling.

On opening SEC play, “That first conference game, a lot of times, will dictate how the rest of your season goes.”

Adds, “They’ve got a good football team.” USC has a two-quarterback system, complemented, Mullen says, by “some explosive young receivers.”

Mullen also impressed by USC’s defensive front seven with some linemen who get to the quarterback well, aided by a veteran group of linebackers.

One of the hard parts, Mullen said, is having “limited” film on USC with an entirely new coaching staff. He does at least have an idea what head coach Will Muschamp’s defense will look like from last year at Auburn. Said he thinks they’ll be an “attacking” defense.

Asked what he wants to see from his own team this weekend, Mullen says, “A team that goes out and plays hard, plays with relentless effort. The same thing I want to see every Saturday from our guys.”

More review of his team, Mullen said he thought the offensive line played well the majority of the game but, like many positions, had a few critical errors that affected the game negatively.

Mullen says quarterback, like every other position, is always a competition. “We’ll see how everyone does in practice this week.” He said previously in the press conference that he doesn’t know that he’d have done anything differently with the QBs in retrospect.

Mullen offering high praise for senior defensive end A.J. Jefferson now, saying he’s the next in line of the great defensive linemen at MSU with Ryan Brown, Chris Jones, Preston Smith, Pernell McPhee, Josh Boyd, Fletcher Cox, etc.

“He’s expected, as the veteran guy in that unit, to get that standard extra high … He’s probably our most productive defensive linemen in practice as well. It’s good for the young guys to see that if they compete well in practice, it’ll pay off on game days.”

As for the secondary, Mullen said “they’re improving … they adjusted well” to the new roles caused by injuries and “We need to see continual improvement from those guys going forward.”

Mullen didn’t want to apply the problem to any one spot. He said, “there are little issues everywhere.” One big issue, though, is that MSU gave up 12 “explosive” plays, and that’s more concerning to Mullen than any other specific position. He said what they need is consistency across the board.

Mullen said part of the problem, as well, was how the team performed after halftime. “Our effort and execution dropped in the second half.” Not something Mullen expects from his team and not fitting with the usual mental approach of the program.

Going forward, Mullen said they’ll announce Saturday if there are any more suspensions, with three players out last weekend.

And that’s it for Mullen. As he leaves, he tells a reporter they had an intense practice on Monday. “I was flying around at practice yesterday.”

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Former Softball Great Chelsea Bramlett Malone Enters MSU Sports Hall Of Fame

This weekend, the MSU Sports Hall of Fame inducts five new members. Each day this week, we’ll be highlighting one of those individuals in this space.

Taking instructions from their head coach, the members of the Lewisburg High School softball team may not realize just how great an athlete Chelsea Bramlett Malone was when she was their age, or maybe a few years older.

Crmh_kvWYAAkm_aShe hardly realizes it herself, actually. Often, it takes seeing the success of her players to remind Malone of the incredible career she had her in own playing days for Mississippi State softball. This week, Malone gets another reminder when she is inducted into the MSU Sports Hall of Fame, one of five new members and certainly one of the most deserving to ever have their name enshrined.

She’ll be introduced with words, and her acceptance will come in the same form, but a single slide showing her incredible numbers would likely suffice. One of two players in SEC history to be named All-American in all four years of her career, the MSU record book is practically an homage to Malone’s career.

The three-time national catcher of the year is MSU’s career leader in batting average (.461), runs scored (219), hits (359) and stolen bases (207), and she also holds single-season records for batting average (.536, 2010) and stolen bases (61, 2010). Her .536 average in 2010 still stands as the 10th-best season in NCAA softball history.

It’s easy to see why Malone was selected, even if it’s often easy for her to forget.

“Sometimes I look at some of my kids and they’re hitting .300 and they’re doing so good and colleges are looking at them,” she said, “then I look at some of the numbers that I put up, and it was just like, wow. I don’t know how I did it sometimes.

“In the heat of the moment, I really didn’t pay a whole lot of attention,” she continued. “I knew what I needed to do for the team. That’s really what I was focused on. Looking back, it’s just kind of like wow, I had records that I never even really thought about.”

Malone had enough records, and enough talent, more specifically, that she was even selected to play for Team USA and helped them win a world championship in the summer of 2010, something she called a dream come true.

Her career was impressive on paper, but to MSU Athletic Director Scott Stricklin, the real excitement came in actually watching her play in person.

“You don’t think of a catcher being that fast,” he said. “Such a unique combination. If she put the ball on the ground, you weren’t going to throw her out. And if you weren’t careful, an infield grounder was going to become a double. She had just great speed, was a very good defensive player, and that’s quite a weapon when you’ve got a catcher who can be that effective on the base paths at the same time and you have her for four years. She played at a high, high level. She was a special talent.”

Part of what made Malone so successful in her career is the same thing that kept her from realizing exactly what she was doing until after the fact. Her commitment to bettering herself as a player was unwavering, and her approach was one that kept her in front of all others. She never stopped training and preparing, and every offseason was spent studying herself. She would figure out what opponents would try to do to stop her, then she would work until she could beat that, too.

“My big thing my junior and senior year was always to make my weakness my strength because I knew, the next year, that’s what they were going to come at me with,” she said. “I just tried my best to stay ahead of the game.”

Clearly, she was successful. With her schedule as a coach, Malone doesn’t often have time to reflect, or even much of a need to. She uses what she learned as a player to teach her team, while all the personal accomplishments stay tucked away in a nice, nostalgic corner of her mind.

Being inducted into the hall of fame has given her the opportunity to bring those memories back. In doing so, it’s not the numbers she remembers, but the opportunities softball gave and continues to give her.

“All the experiences that I got,” she began, “the ability to play for an SEC school and be in Starkville and go to all the events. Being in that kind of area. Then having the opportunity to play USA Softball. It meant the world to me to be able to get an education and then come back and coach these girls now and watch them sign and go to college and play college ball. There’s so much good that came out of every bit of it.”

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How Ross Became Boss, On The Origins Of Success For MSU’s Star Receiver

It’s Monday, August 22, just under two weeks until Mississippi State’s first game of the season, the home-opener against South Alabama. On the practice fields at the Seal Football Complex a half-mile north of Davis Wade Stadium, the Bulldogs are going through one of their final preseason practices before they transition to game prep.

The cover of Saturday's game program, featuring Fred Ross

The cover of Saturday’s game program, featuring Fred Ross

It’s early in practice when receivers and defensive backs are doing 1-on-1 drills. Senior wideout Fred Ross is given the playcall, the route to run against the corner trying to cover him. However, Ross never finishes the route. He slips out of the break and falls to the ground before the pass can be completed.

Physically, he’s fine. As a football player, he should be fine, too. Should be. Ross set three school records as a junior last season, becoming the first All-SEC receiver for MSU in 20 years and the first 1,000-yard receiver in almost 40 years.

One bad rep won’t hurt him. His coaches and teammates forgot about it almost as soon as it happened. But not Ross.

It’s later in practice, and MSU is running through team drills, playing full 11-on-11. Ross is on the sideline for this drive, but then he hears wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales call the play out. It’s the same one Ross slipped on in 1-on-1 drills.

Ross runs and grabs the receiver who is supposed to be on the field and pulls him back.

“Coach,” Ross says, looking to Gonzales, “I want it.”

In that moment, Gonzales remembers the slip from earlier in practice. Happily, the coach obliges his star receiver.

“No matter what,” Gonzales later explained when sharing the memory, “he wants to get better.”

Those on the outside see the speed, the athleticism and the strong hands displayed in games, but to those inside the program, it’s the moments in practice like that one that make Ross such a good receiver. He happens to have a great many physical talents, yes, but those would be wasted if he wasn’t a hard worker – the hardest worker, according to his coaches.

It sounds like a cliché, and in many situations it would be. It sounds boring, and maybe it is, even in this situation. But Ross’s dedication to improving himself, his unflinching work ethic and his determination to be perfect are what have made him so successful, and why he will continue to be successful as long as he plays.

“I flip on film,” Gonzales said, “to me, that’s what separates him from everybody else – the work ethic that he has.

“Then you couple that with his athleticism, that’s what makes a special player,” he continued. “All the great players I’ve ever been around have an incredible work ethic. When they get on the field, they flip the switch and understand it’s their time to get better. ‘Every rep for me is a time for me to get better. Every rep I take.’”

“He’s a worker,” head coach Dan Mullen answered when asked what makes Ross so good. “He’s got a great amount of talent, but he’s a great guy for people to look up to. I think he’s going to be very, very successful throughout his career, even beyond Mississippi State, because of his work ethic. He’s a guy that just isn’t, ‘Hey, I’ll show up. I know my position. Throw me the ball and I’ll go make a play.’ He knows every single one of the receiver positions. He’s constantly working on his technique and fundamentals, constantly working on catching the football and trying to get better every single day.”

And there, Mullen hit on something very important for both Ross and for MSU in 2016: he can play every position. His first two years, Ross was an outside receiver. Last year, in his record-setting campaign, he played inside in the slot. His encore this season will be to do it all, a magician who has built a full set of tricks. Ross will take the big stages in SEC football every week across the country and put on his show, and his coaches and teammates are thankful for it.

Ross’s ability to move all over the field gives Gonzales and Mullen something every offensive coach loves: options. It allows them to put so many of their young and talented receivers in the best position for them to succeed, because they know that any position is one in which Ross can succeed. It allows them to confuse defenses by moving Ross all over the field, exploiting matchups and creating distractions.

He can take the hard, outside boundary. He can make the field-side his domain, creating in the open spaces it provides. He can fly out of the slot. He can even line up in the backfield. He could probably throw a couple passes, if they really wanted him to.

Whatever MSU wants to do, Ross has a way to make it easier, make it better.

“He’s a smart football player,” Gonzales said. “That takes time. Over the last four years, he’s learned the position. He’s learned multiple formations. He’s learned everything. What that does is it frees you up … You can just change personnel instead of changing formations. It allows you to set him up 1-on-1, if you like that matchup. It just frees you up and it allows you to do so many different things.”

Ross’s work ethic doesn’t just make him better, it makes his entire team better.

The only hard part will be tracking everything he does. Keep an eye on No. 8 when the Bulldogs are on offense. Opposing defenses surely will.

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Mississippi State Unveils Design For New Floor Of Humphrey Coliseum

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Mississippi State unveiled its new basketball court at the Humphrey Coliseum today, not just displaying the permanent new wood floor, but sharing a clean design created to express pride in the city of Starkville and the state of Mississippi.

The two-toned court is made from a softer wood than previously used in The Hump, with the full-court stain being slightly lighter, as well. Shades of that stain, rather than paint, are used to mark the inside of the three-point arc.

The details on and around the court are where MSU highlighted its local ties. One of the more subtle details, what looks from a distance to be a design around the outside of the court, is actually a listing of all 82 counties in Mississippi. Five inches tall and painted in gray, they represent the populace of the state and the fact that the University owns property in every county in Mississippi.

Of note, Oktibbeha County – where Starkville and MSU are located – is the only one to appear in white, located at midcourt between the home and visiting benches. In front of the scorer’s table is the state of Mississippi, also in white, with a maroon X over the location of Starkville marking the spot for players to check into the game.

“One of the things we’re really proud of here is that we’re the state school of Mississippi,” Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said. “With this new court and new design, we felt like we had an opportunity to showcase the state and city we have so much pride in, and I’m pleased with what our staff designed to highlight Starkville and the entire state of Mississippi.”

In an additional display of that local pride, Starkvegas – the nickname for Starkville – has been placed specifically in front of the student section along the baseline. Senior Associate Athletic Director Scott Wetherbee was one of several in the department working on the project and said the idea was to capture the energy and atmosphere of the city by painting it front of the student body.

The incorporation of the city and state is not something new at MSU, and is actually something Stricklin has made an effort to include across the department. At Davis Wade Stadium, for example, the plaza in front of the new end zone has the state of Mississippi circled by the names of every county in the state. The new golf course has a putting green in the shape of Mississippi. Even most of the uniforms for MSU’s various sports now have the state somewhere on them, as Director of Marketing Rhett Hobart pointed out.

“We like to promote that we’re the state school,” Hobart said, “but we want to do it in a unique way.”

As for the designs on the court itself, the idea was go to go for a clean look, not too busy, and one that highlights the primary university logo, along with the wordmark on each end of the floor. The non-typical placement of the wordmark inside the three-point line offered more room for a larger M-State logo at midcourt, the same one which will be on the football field for the 2016 season, as well. Plus, Hobart noted, the wordmarks are more likely to appear on TV in their new position rather than along the sidelines where they were previously located.

The shift from the wordmark to the primary logo at midcourt was purposeful, and one MSU hopes will help create consistency in brand appearance across all sports and venues.

Installation of the court is now finished and the final details are being applied this week.

Overall, the design is one that Wetherbee believes will be pleasing to the eye as well as direct in its support of what is important to the school and athletic department.

“We wanted a clean look, and I really think this court is going to shine with the maroon lines and stained three-point area,” he said. “Having the city of Starkville and all 82 counties represented is an important feature. That’s who we are at Mississippi State.”

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30 Predictions Sure To Come True For Mississippi State’s 2016 Football Season

If you could see the future, would you want to? I tend to believe it would ruin the present, even if there are some notable advantages to knowing what’s coming. Avoiding embarrassment and injury, for one. Making money off future Super Bowl winners, perhaps (NCAA reminder: Don’t Bet On It!).

112815_FB_OleMiss_Ross_KP1922But I feel like it would be considerably more fun to predict the future, using only the clues and hints available, rather than to know the future. The difference between magic and magic tricks, in a sense. It’s more impressive that way. Knowing what’s coming takes away all the fun of the ride, not to sound like a bad fortune cookie. Guessing what’s coming leaves room for adventure, adds a bit of risk and invokes more pride if you nail your prediction, though there’s no guarantee you’ll be right.

And in this instance, I’ll probably be wrong. At least somewhat. I did leave myself some easy calls in here.

But here’s the deal: these are all predictions for Mississippi State’s 2016 football season. I’m peering into the crystal ball where depth charts, injury reports and game recaps are floating through the fog, all in the name of making some guesses about what’s going to happen over the next four months (there’s a preview of one prediction: four months, not three).

Some are obvious – I never claimed to be intelligent – and some come from rumblings I hear around the program, observations over the offseason and plain guesswork coming from the slowly-firing synapses in my brain.

All of them are 100 percent guaranteed to maybe be right. Possibly.

  1. Senior receiver Fred Ross again leads MSU in receiving,
  2. But junior receiver Donald Gray is the breakout star of the receiving corps.
  3. Senior running back Ashton Shumpert silences some doubters,
  4. While senior running back Brandon Holloway leads all backs in all-purpose yards and touches,
  5. And sophomore running back Aeris Williams becomes everyone’s new favorite backup (and future starter).
  6. Senior defensive end Jonathan Calvin leads the team in sacks,
  7. Senior linebacker Richie Brown leads the team in tackles,
  8. And sophomore safety Brandon Bryant cements himself as one of the best defensive backs in the country, leading the team in interceptions.
  9. Junior cornerback Jamoral Graham gets at least one pick-six.
  10. Junior cornerback Lashard Durr gets a strong hold on his starting spot at corner.
  11. Freshman defensive back Maurice Smitherman sets himself up to be the next big star in the defensive backfield.
  12. Linebacker Gerri Green takes a huge step as a redshirt sophomore, garnering attention from NFL scouts.
  13. MSU’s front seven becomes feared by mid-season,
  14. Partially because of the variety of looks and attacks,
  15. Partially because of the deep, athletic group of linebackers,
  16. And largely because of the nearly-1,000-pound defensive line trio of Nelson Adams, Nick James and Jeff Simmons gobbling up offensive linemen,
  17. All aided by the attention drawn by senior end A.J. Jefferson, who shaves his beard, much to the dismay of humans everywhere.
  18. MSU increases its team sack total considerably.
  19. Forced turnovers see an uptick, too, thanks largely to the previously mentioned Bryant.
  20. Center Jamaal Clayborn is again one of the most underrated players on the team.
  21. Junior receiver Gabe Myles joins him on the list by season’s end.
  22. Sophomore receiver Malik Dear becomes MSU’s best mismatch,
  23. While freshman receiver Keith Mixon makes highlight-reel plays 50 percent of the time he touches the ball,
  24. And fans complain that he doesn’t get more playing time,
  25. While coaches patiently explain that he’s just a freshman and has to get a grasp of the entire offense, but yes, he is pretty good, isn’t he?
  26. Tight end becomes a position of depth and strength by season’s end.
  27. The quarterback position is settled by the off week,
  28. And opens back up after the bowl game.
  29. Oh, MSU goes to its seventh-straight bowl game, adding to the current program-record streak of six.
  30. And finally, junior kicker Westin Graves finishes the season with the most points-responsible-for on the team.
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Live Blog: Dan Mullen Monday Press Conference, South Alabama Week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will hold his first weekly press conference. Mississippi State plays South Alabama on Saturday at 11 a.m. in the season opener. We’ll be live-reporting his press conference as it happens.

Updates to follow.


WPMAMXXNWEPIADE.20151230195608And he’s here. Football season is almost, somewhat, sort of underway. Let’s roll.

Mullen says this week, transitioning into game week, is what you work for. He’s interested to see how the younger guys handle their first real game week.

“It’s real. Now, it’s going on the field,” he says.

“Going into year eight for me as a coach, I’m fired up. I’m excited. Can’t wait to go run out of that tunnel,” he adds.

As for South Alabama, Mullen said he expects an exciting game and sees two similar teams who will be young at a good number of positions, both dealing with injuries on defense.

“Both teams are undefined right now, and both teams are going to find their personality,” he said.

Now, for the topic everyone was waiting to discuss:

Mullen says “I was hoping to be ready” to name a starting quarterback today, but he’s not quite there yet. “I’m waiting for the clarity.”

He said he’s not trying to be deceptive or misleading, he just doesn’t have an answer yet. Said that more than one quarterback will play, probably two in the first quarter. He said he’d hate to name a starter, have that guy go out for the first series, then the second guy comes in for the second series and does a better job.

The way he explained it, it sounds like one guy will get the first series, the next will get the second series, and then they’ll go from there. To him, it doesn’t seem to matter who gets which series, just who does better with it.

He reiterated that he wanted it to happen, wanted to have it decided, but it’s not yet settled. Needs real game play to do that.

The competition is down to two people, Nick Fitzgerald and Damian Williams, as expected. However, Mullen did say freshman Nick Tiano will get some reps, too.

He adds, “There’s a comfort level with both guys repping with the ones, so I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.”

As for the competition at running back, Mullen says Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway “will get the majority of the reps” to begin with. Though he adds there will be plenty of reps to go around, also saying that special teams are a proving ground for young players like some of the running backs MSU has.

Asked which RB to expect after the veterans, Mullen went with Aeris Williams. Said he’s a good mix of Shump and Holloway’s skill sets.

Mullen on Dak Prescott becoming the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys: “He’s going to handle the moment well. He’s been in a lot of pressure situations … I’m just proud of him.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Mullen asked about the injuries at cornerback. He says that through training camp, the ones through threes had all had equal reps, so he’s not too concerned about guys not being ready.

Injury update, defensively, as well: DL/LB Will Coleman will be out the first two weeks with “a back issue” that popped up early in camp.

And that’s it for Mullen. Catch y’all later.

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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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Brian Johnson breaks down MSU’s QB competition midway through preseason

Finding the replacement for Dak Prescott, it turns out, has surprisingly little to do with emulating the former star quarterback for Mississippi State. In fact, calling the next starting QB for the Bulldogs a “replacement” for Dak would be misleading at best, and more than likely, just plain inaccurate.

Brian Johnson at MSU's spring game with Dak Prescott and Fred Ross

Brian Johnson at MSU’s spring game with Dak Prescott and Fred Ross

Quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson spoke with local reporters halfway through preseason camp about the three-way battle to be the team’s signal caller in 2016, a race he says remains quite even. He didn’t talk about who can run the best, like Prescott did throughout his career. He didn’t speculate who had the best deep ball, who was the best leader, who was the most personable in interviews, who could make the quickest reads or who could scramble best if the pocket breaks down.

Johnson – and head coach Dan Mullen, by extension – wants one quality in his starting quarterback: consistency.

Who cares if you can throw the prettiest touchdown, if you’re just as likely to throw an interception the very next play (even if it is somehow a prettily-thrown pick). Sure, you can scramble, but so what, if you can’t remember the hot route?

High ceilings are good. High ceilings are why guys are recruited, why the three young men battling for this position were signed, but a high floor is the key to making a coach comfortable letting them on the field every play.

“Consistency is what this whole thing boils down to,” Johnson replied when asked what he’s looking for.

The candidates are known, generally, and now down to three after the transfer of Elijah Staley. Junior Damian Williams is the veteran of the group, having both started and won games in the SEC, though he redshirted all of last season. Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald was the primary backup to Prescott last year, the only of three to take a snap in 2015. And freshman Nick Tiano is the greenest of the bunch, having never taken a snap of college football in his life, though his talent and charisma have given him an equal chance in this race.

As it stands today, none have separated themselves, their coach told reporters after practice.

“Consistency,” Johnson continued to explain. “Be the same guy every play. No roller coaster. Have that baseline up here, and you can wiggle on the baseline, but I don’t want to see the huge ebbs and flows. Consistency in performance … You want to be closer to your ceiling than your floor at all times. The whole deal is bringing that baseline up and shrinking that gap.”

It’s like playing the stock market. The idea makes sense. The quarterback is the only player on the field guaranteed to touch the ball every snap, except for the center, of course. MSU also believes it’s going to have a strong defense in 2016. A reliable quarterback pairs well there, too. Add in a veteran group of running backs and receivers, including the leading returning receiver in the SEC in Fred Ross, and MSU has even more of a need to find someone who can support them on a play-by-play basis.

The question for Johnson then becomes: you can work on fundamentals and technique, you can develop talent and you can review playbooks, but how do you coach consistency? How does Johnson, the man so in need of consistency, teach his pupils to have it?

“It’s a constant, every day reminder,” he answered. “Like you said, how do you coach it? You just have to beat it in every single day that this is the standard. What do you want your standard to be as a player? What do you want your standard to be as position group? You have to live up to or exceed that standard every single day. Understand the consequences at hand, what’s at stake, understand what you’re competing for. You have to be self-motivated to achieve that. 99 percent of the world can’t do that. They have to understand that and meet that baseline of effort, intensity and focus every single practice, every single work out, every single walk through, every single meal – everything they do in every aspect of their life, they have to meet or exceed their baseline.”

Find your floor. Never sink below it. Always seek to raise it. The one who does, has the job of a lifetime waiting on him.

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Howland Building Through Details, Experience In Italy

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.

unnamed-1His 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

unnamedNearing 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.

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