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SEC Hoops 2016: Tapping the Brakes on Mississippi State

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Mississippi State has a new coach and a one-and-done. Is that going to be enough to get to the tournament?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

MSU annual SRS

If we're being completely honest, Rick Ray got dealt a crap hand.

All of the rot that had developed late in the Rick Stansbury era came to bear after the 2012 season.  Even with a pair of top-shelf recruits (Renardo Sidney and Rodney Hood) on the roster in 2012, State went 8-8 in the SEC and wound up in the NIT.  Sidney declared for the NBA draft, Hood transferred to Duke, a bunch of seniors graduated, and a bunch of depth guys transferred out of the program -- and the end result was that Mississippi State fielded the worst SEC team (per sports-reference.com's SRS rating) in a long time in Ray's first year.

With that said, Ray did improve the situation a bit in his three years at State.  Even with Craig Sword spending much of the season injured or ineffective, State managed to go 6-12 in SEC play in 2014-15.  That season wasn't anything to write home about, but it was considerably better than what Ray inherited.  Mississippi State showed Ray gratitude for that by showing him the door.

That might have been a bit unfair, but it's hard to argue that Mississippi State did not improve its coaching situation by hiring Ben Howland.  Howland got run out of town at UCLA two years ago, but he also went to three Final Fours in ten years in Westwood.  Before that, Howland turned around flailing programs at Pitt and Northern Arizona in short order.  Whatever you think of Howland's issues at UCLA, he's a proven winner.  What's more, shortly after taking the Mississippi State job, Howland landed one of the top recruits in the 2015 class in Malik Newman.  That might have been an easier sell than it sounds given that Newman grew up in Mississippi and his father played at Mississippi State, but it's created a lot of optimism for the program either way.  Already, some are predicting Mississippi State as a tournament team in 2016.

To which I say: slow down.

MSU recruiting

While Newman is a likely lottery pick, surrounding him on Mississippi State's roster are a second-team All-SEC player (Sword), a big man with All-SEC potential (Gavin Ware), and... not much else.  Newman will make an impact, but the "bones" of this program, so to speak, are very weak.  This is still a team that's gone 13-41 in SEC play over the last three years, and whose 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes both ranked dead last in the SEC.  The 2012 recruiting class was a "quantity over quality" class that got rated a bit better because it included a lot of players, but it was hardly a program-changing class.

To show one example, look at Kansas State in 2007-08.  In that instance, a top recruit (Michael Beasley) joined what had been a flailing program -- albeit one that was in a bit better shape than Mississippi State currently is.  Beasley had one of the best freshman seasons in recent memory, and that was enough to -- just barely -- get K-State into the NCAA Tournament (and that doesn't even consider fellow freshmen Jacob Pullen and Bill Walker.)  For Mississippi State to get to the tournament, Newman will practically have to have a Beasley or Anthony Davis-level impact as a freshman -- and State will probably need a lot of other things to go right as well.

MSU returning

Still, there are positive signs for Mississippi State.  While Ray's recruiting was not very good, one area where he excelled was player retention.  This wasn't a Tony Barbee situation where the program was a revolving door; Ray's recruits actually stayed in the program.  Other than Roquez Johnson -- a decent player, but not one who should be hard to replace -- Mississippi State's losses consisted of a backup point guard and a couple of four-year depth guys who transferred out of the program.  Just because of what's returning, State would have likely improved this year even if Ray were still the head coach and Malik Newman were suiting up for Kentucky.

But incremental improvements weren't going to get the team to much more than .500 in the SEC.  Adding Newman to the returning core players should improve the team; the question is, how much?

MSU four factors

The things that need to improve are, well, pretty clear.  Mississippi State featured the SEC's second-worst offense on a per-possession basis last year (only Missouri was worse.)  The Bulldogs were very turnover-prone, couldn't shoot, and couldn't rebound.  They could get to the foul line -- but they didn't convert a ton of their free throw opportunities.  They were a bit better on the defensive end, but even there the issues with rebounding carried over, and Mississippi State had a bit of luck on its side -- for example, opponents in SEC play shot just 66.7 percent at the foul line.  Perhaps Howland -- whose teams have frequently been good at shooting the rock and avoiding turnovers, as well as playing good defense -- can help a bit with that, but how much of Howland's success at UCLA and Pitt was based on coaching and how much was based on personnel?  Malik Newman is a start, but the talent level on this team is nothing like the ones he coached at UCLA.  That could improve in the coming years, but there's still just as much reason for pessimism as optimism with this year's team.

Backcourt

Player Year Height Weight 247 Rating 247 Rank MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG WS Notes
Trivante Bloodman 18.4 3.8 1.5 2.0 0.0 0.8 0.7
Maurice Dunlap II 10.1 2.9 0.6 0.1 0.0 0.3 0.0 transfer/Jones County JC
Fred Thomas Sr. 6'5" 206 0.853 3* (#46 SG) 24.4 9.1 3.6 0.8 0.5 0.7 2.2
Travis Daniels Sr. 6'8" 219 19.8 6.1 3.9 0.6 0.2 0.4 1.1
Craig Sword Sr. 6'3" 196 0.8959 3* (#27 SG) 24.8 11.3 2.8 1.7 0.4 1.0 2.2
I.J. Ready Jr. 5'11" 170 0.8685 3* (#43 PG) 25.7 8.2 2.0 2.4 0.0 1.3 2.0
Quinndary Weatherspoon Fr. 6'4" 190 0.9399 4* (#30 SG)
Malik Newman Fr. 6'3" 178 0.9969 5* (#1 PG)
Xavian Stapleton Soph. 6'6" 190 sitting out 2015-16

When a new coach comes in and tries to upgrade the talent level, there can be all sorts of consequences for the holdovers from the previous regime.  In some cases, the players leave the program.  You can argue whether Maurice Dunlap got chased off by Howland or if he simply saw the writing on the wall, but either way, he's no longer in the program.

For the players who remain in the program, though, the impact is harder to predict.  Craig Sword has ranked in the top 5 in the SEC in usage rate in each of his three years at Mississippi State, though one could certainly argue that this hasn't been a good thing for Mississippi State -- Sword still commits too many turnovers (2.5 per game in 2014-15) and while he's improved his jump shot -- he shot 40 percent from three in SEC play last year -- he's primarily a slasher.  Let's just say that with Newman in the fold, Sword is unlikely to be the featured player in Mississippi State's offense.  How does a second-team All-SEC player react to being told that he's no longer the guy?  Sword can be a very good complement to Newman in the backcourt -- or, he can try to assert himself as The Guy by jacking up 10-15 shots a night.  The former would be a great thing for Mississippi State.  The latter?  Not so much.

For I.J. Ready, the presence of Newman likely relegates him to a backup role after starting on and off for two years.  Ready is a decent point guard, but there's almost no chance he starts over Newman.  For Fred Thomas and Travis Daniels, the impact is less clear -- Newman isn't a direct threat to their minutes, but freshman Quinndary Weatherspoon could be.  Weatherspoon has a lot of potential, and for a team that's honestly lacked a consistent outside shooting threat for the past three years, he could see big minutes.  Thomas has been the closest thing that Mississippi State has had to a shooting specialist, but you generally want a shooting specialist to do better than 35 percent on threes.

Daniels was even worse from three (29 percent) last year, but his size and ability to play on the wing can earn him playing time as he has the length to defend bigger wings.  But, assuming Daniels' offensive play doesn't improve, Howland would be sacrificing offense for defense by playing him.  Considering that offense was Mississippi State's biggest issue last year, that may not be a tradeoff worth making.

Which brings us to Newman, easily the most dynamic player Mississippi State has seen in quite a while.  There are few weaknesses in Newman's offensive game; he can get into the lane off the dribble and shoot from the outside.  So where are the questions?  Well, you do have to wonder if Newman is here to play for Mississippi State -- or if he's here to showcase his skills for NBA scouts.  The latter is why some top prospects haven't had the effect on their team that their skills would suggest -- O.J. Mayo, for instance, put up incredible numbers in one year at USC but that didn't seem to make the team any better.  Top prospects choose a school for a variety of reasons, but part of the appeal of Mississippi State for Newman might have been that he can be the focal point of the offense -- which he wouldn't be at Kentucky.  Which is all to say that while the pieces are there for Mississippi State to have a good backcourt, whether they will or not is not as cut and dry as Mississippi State's believers seem to think.

Xavian Stapleton, a transfer from Louisiana Tech, is sitting out the 2015-16 season.

Frontcourt

Player Year Height Weight 247 Rating 247 Rank MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG WS Notes
Roquez Johnson 26.0 9.3 5.1 0.5 0.2 0.8 2.5
Oliver Black 15.8 1.8 2.4 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.5 transfer/UALR
Johnny Zuppardo Sr. 6'9" 235 0.83 3* (#12 JC PF) injured in 2014-15
Gavin Ware Sr. 6'9" 260 0.9161 3* (#15 C) 26.8 10.0 7.1 0.3 1.1 0.4 2.9
Demetrius Houston Soph. 6'7" 210 0.8702 3* (#49 SF) 13.0 3.1 2.3 0.4 0.2 0.5 -0.2
Fallou Ndoye Soph. 6'11" 222 0.826 3* (#65 PF) 12.4 2.1 1.8 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.3
Joe Strugg Fr. 6'8" 196 0.8213 3* (#84 PF)
Aric Holman Fr. 6'10" 195 0.9366 4* (#25 PF)

While the backcourt has the potential to be pretty good, Mississippi State's frontcourt is less settled.

Gavin Ware has All-SEC potential, but in three years he hasn't quite lived up to expectations.  He's a decent scorer on the low block, but his efficiency numbers took a hit last year as his shooting percentage dropped from 58 percent as a sophomore to barely 50 percent as a junior.  That's not a very good percentage for a guy who's mostly taking shots close to the basket.  Perhaps improvement by the players around him will take the pressure off Ware.  He's also not the shot-blocker you would normally think a player that size would be, though he does rank as one of the SEC's best rebounders.

The rest of the frontcourt?  Well, that's a big question mark.  Demetrius Houston shot 33 percent on 2-pointers and committed 1.2 turnovers a game -- in 13 minutes a night -- as a freshman, which tells you about everything you need to know about how his freshman year went.  But he may wind up being the best bet to replace the graduated Roquez Johnson -- which is a scary thought, but Houston does at least have some potential to be better and the remaining options in the frontcourt are even more questionable.

Freshman Aric Holman has potential as a shot blocker and low-post scorer, but at 195 pounds will need to put on weight to be an effective defender in the SEC -- many programs would consider redshirting him for that reason, but he also might be Mississippi State's best option at the four.  Another scary thought.  Fallou Ndoye has the size, but to say his offensive game is a work in progress is being charitable.  Johnny Zuppardo, who missed the entire season after tearing his ACL, has the reverse issue: his offensive game is polished, but he leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive end.

Another freshman, Joe Strugg, has some potential but may be a redshirt candidate as he was dealing with injuries in the preseason.  There are some pieces in the frontcourt beyond Ware, but whether State will be able to get much contribution from them is a question mark.

Schedule

Date Opponent
11/13 Eastern Washington
11/16 Southern
11/19 vs. Miami (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)
11/20 Puerto Rico Tip-Off
11/22 Puerto Rico Tip-Off
11/28 Tennessee-Martin
12/2 Texas Southern
12/12 at UMKC
12/16 at Florida State
12/19 Tulane
12/23 vs. Northern Colorado (Jackson, MS)
12/31 North Carolina Central
1/6 Texas A&M
1/9 at Arkansas
1/12 at Kentucky
1/16 Tennessee
1/19 at Florida
1/23 Mississippi
1/26 at South Carolina
1/30 at Missouri
2/2 Alabama
2/6 LSU
2/9 Arkansas
2/13 Georgia
2/16 Vanderbilt
2/20 at Alabama
2/24 at Texas A&M
2/27 South Carolina
3/2 at Mississippi
3/5 Auburn

Mississippi State's schedule could get off to a rough start with a dangerous mid-major in Eastern Washington.  Both they and Texas Southern were NCAA Tournament teams last season and could be again, while North Carolina Central won the MEAC regular season.  The Puerto Rico Tip-Off has Mississippi State facing Miami in the first round, followed by either Utah or Texas Tech; Butler, Temple, and Minnesota are on the opposite side of the bracket.

The SEC schedule should be about average -- league contender Texas A&M is on the schedule twice, as is Ole Miss and a likely improved South Carolina.  But so are rebuilding Alabama and Arkansas.

Outlook

There are certainly reasons for optimism with Mississippi State.  Malik Newman upgrades the talent level immediately, and Quinndary Weatherspoon and Aric Holman should pay dividends beyond 2015-16.  But it's also tough to expect an NCAA Tournament bid right away.  Even assuming Newman is an All-SEC (or, hell, All-American) player right off the bat, and MSU gets a full, healthy year from Sword... all that maybe gets Mississippi State in the tournament field, if barely.

And that's a definite Best Case Scenario.  If Newman is merely good rather than great, Mississippi State is probably an NIT team.  Which is, well, better than what they've been the past couple of years, but elite recruits have such a mixed track record as freshmen that assuming Newman can carry the team all the way to the tournament is asking a lot given this program's recent history.

Still, even though the best case scenario may not happen, barring disaster Mississippi State should be, at worst, a team that finishes around .500 in the SEC and contends for an NIT bid.  That may not sound too exciting, but it's better than Mississippi State has been the last couple of years.