How Did We Get Here?
There is one number that explains how Mississippi State, a program that has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2009, is popping up in preseason Top 25 rankings: 84.9.
84.9 is the percentage of possession-minutes that the Bulldogs are welcoming back from last year’s team, which won 25 games — the most the program had won in a season since 2003-04 — and made it to the semifinals of the NIT. Ben Howland’s third-year jump wasn’t as dramatic as his third-year jumps at Pittsburgh and UCLA, but Mississippi State in his third year found its stride. The Bulldogs started the season 13-1, albeit with only one win against a team ranked in the KenPom top 100; and after losing five of six during a rough stretch in January, Mississippi State finished the season 7-4. They lost to Tennessee in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, and a weak nonconference schedule came back to haunt them as they were snubbed by the selection committee in spite of a 22-11 overall record and 9-9 SEC record. But they made the most of their NIT appearance, beating Nebraska, Baylor, and Louisville to earn a trip to New York.
And all that was accomplished on a team that didn’t have a single scholarship senior on the roster. Two reserves did transfer — Xavian Stapleton took a graduate year at Florida Atlantic, while Eli Wright transferred to St. John’s — but other than that, everybody is back. And to that group, Mississippi State adds the nation’s 16th-ranked recruiting class, with three four-star recruits joining the fold.
Mississippi State currently has the SEC’s longest NCAA Tournament drought at ten years, and they haven’t made the second weekend of the tournament since 1996. Both of those droughts could end in 2019. Ben Howland has an experienced and talented squad on his hands.
As the talent around Quinndary Weatherspoon has gotten better, the 6’4” senior guard has seen his scoring average drop, from 16.5 ppg as a sophomore to 14.4 ppg last year. But that was primarily related to him taking fewer shots; as a sophomore, he averaged 12.7 field goal attempts per game but that number dropped to 10.4 as a junior. His shooting percentage actually got a bit better, and that was in spite of a slump from three-point range, where he posted a career-low 31.3 percent as a junior. He currently ranks 17th on Mississippi State’s all-time career scoring list, and if he merely replicates his junior year performance he’ll finish 4th; he needs 766 points — or roughly 21.9 ppg over a 35-game schedule — to leave as the all-time leading scorer.
That’s probably not going to happen, if only because Mississippi State has plenty of other offensive weapons.— most notably his younger brother, Nick Weatherspoon. The younger Weatherspoon, a 6’2” sophomore, started 36 games as a freshman and averaged 10.8 ppg, third on the team. And that was with a jump shot that needed some work: Nick shot just 29.2 percent from three-point range.
Nick Weatherspoon is capable of playing both guard positions; Mississippi State also has Lamar Peters, a 6’0” junior who started 21 games last year but struggled after a promising freshman season. Peters’ scoring average dropped from 10.7 to 9.6 as his three-point percentage dropped from 36.6 percent to 27.7 percent; but he also increased his assist average from 3.4 to 4.5. It appears the best course for the Bulldogs might be for Peters to function as more of a creator and defer to the Weatherspoons for scoring. 6’4” junior guard Tyson Carter is a three-point specialist: 170 of his 273 field goal attempts last season came from beyond the arc. Of course, you’d probably prefer that he make more than 34.1 percent of them; but his career 83 percent mark at the foul line suggests that the shooting form is there to do better than that.
And in the realm of new problems for Mississippi State, finding playing time for 6’6” freshman D.J. Stewart, a four-star recruit, could be a challenge.
Quietly, 6’10” senior Aric Holman had a great season. While he only averaged 10.9 ppg and 6.7 rpg, his shooting percentages were incredible: 63.7 percent on twos and 44 percent on threes. He also averaged 1.8 blocks per game — which wasn’t even the highest on the team thanks to 6’11” sophomore Abdul Ado. Ado was a bit raw on the offensive end — though he did shoot 61.5 percent from the field, that was basically a result of him taking only chip shots; he didn’t attempt a single three-pointer — but he was a force on the defensive end, averaging 1.9 blocks per game. Turnovers were a bit of a problem, though: Ado committed 71 turnovers as a freshman, the third-highest total on the team behind Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters — both of whom had the ball in their hands a lot more often than Ado did.
And if that wasn’t enough, 6’10” freshman Reggie Perry — a four-star recruit in the 247 Sports composite, and a five-star recruit according to Rivals — is joining the fold, giving the Bulldogs a third player with length and a good offensive skill set. Does Ben Howland dare to play all three at the same time? And Howland has even more size off the bench, with a pair of 6’10” juniors in E.J. Datcher and Jethro Tshisumpa. Datcher has played a grand total of 464 minutes in two seasons and is quite foul-prone; Tshisumpa played last season at San Jacinto College after starting his career at Arizona State. He did block 3.7 shots per game in his year at San Jacinto, though his offensive game is still incredibly raw. Oh yeah, and Mississippi State also has a freshman walk-on in Andrew Junkin who’s 6’11”. If you’re keeping score at home, the Bulldogs have six players on the roster who are 6’10” or taller.
On the wing, Mississippi State has another top 100 recruit in Robert Woodard, a local product from nearby Columbus. 6’8” sophomore KeyShawn Feazell played sparingly as a freshman and it’s tough to see him cracking the rotation on a team this talented.
|Georgia Southwestern (exhibition)
|Long Beach State
|vs. Arizona State
|MGM Resorts Main Event
|vs. Clemson (Newark, NJ)
|vs. Wright State (Jackson, MS)
|at South Carolina
|at Ole Miss
It’s safe to say that Mississippi State’s nonconference schedule will not keep it out of the tournament this year. After playing just one Top 100 opponent out of conference a year ago, the Bulldogs will play at least five teams in KenPom’s preseason Top 100 — and possibly six if they draw St. Mary’s in the second game in Las Vegas. There are also a couple of tricky mid-majors in Wofford and Wright State on there.
In SEC play, they’ll draw both Kentucky and Auburn twice — which would be bad news for a struggling team, but good news for one that sees itself as a NCAA Tournament team. They’ll also face Ole Miss, Alabama, and South Carolina twice. In a sign of the times, one of their two games against Ole Miss will be televised on CBS.
It’s certainly a bit weird for a team that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in a decade to go into a season with making the tournament as the floor, and yet that’s about where we are with Mississippi State. In a deep SEC, nobody can really say that making the tournament is a guarantee — after all, it’s still possible to pile up a large number of losses — but Mississippi State is one of the most experienced teams in the conference, and they don’t appear to have any major holes on the roster. They have multiple guards who can score and multiple big men who can stop you from scoring. Assuming everyone stays in good health, it’s hard to see how this goes wrong.
Oh, yeah — and the window could stay open for a while. After 2018-19, Quinndary Weatherspoon and Aric Holman will graduate, but the youngsters could be here for a while. Perry is just outside of the one-and-done range, and while there are a few other guys on NBA scouts’ radar, they’re more of the “play 3-4 years in college and catch on with a NBA team” variety than the one-and-done variety. Ben Howland seems to be reaching cruising altitude in his fourth year, and this season should tell us about how high the program will go under his leadership.