How Did We Get Here?
Ben Howland’s impact on the fortunes of the Mississippi State basketball program were immediate upon his hiring in 2015. The former head coach at Pitt and UCLA took over a program that had won 13 SEC games in Rick Ray’s three-year tenure and improved it from 159th to 78th in KenPom in his first season. He got the Bulldogs to a .500 record in his second year, then 25 wins and an NIT Final Four run in his third year before delivering the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 11 years in 2019. Mississippi State took a slight step back in 2019-20, dropping to 48th in KenPom though they won 20 games for the third year in a row and actually improved by a game in the SEC standings.
Building a program in a short amount of time is kind of Ben Howland’s forte. At Pitt, he took the Panthers from 13-15 in his first year to 28-5 in his fourth; at Northern Arizona, he won 14 games in his first two years and 63 in his next three. And, of course, at UCLA, it was three consecutive Final Fours after an 11-17 record in his first year. Sustaining that success, though, proved difficult at UCLA, the one place Howland stayed longer than five years. After making the third Final Four in his fifth year, Howland coached five more years at UCLA and never made it out of the first weekend, missing the tournament entirely in two of those years. (Interestingly, Howland’s current reputation seems to be based mostly on that five-year run at UCLA and not the first five years, or what he did at Pitt and Northern Arizona.)
In short, we’re past the program-building stage at which Howland excels, and into the program-sustaining phase that Howland struggled with in Westwood — and, it seems, might do in Starkville. This year, Mississippi State’s roster features just a single player who ranked in the top 100 of the 247 Sports composite — and that player is a freshman. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs return just 27.4 percent of their possession-minutes from last season. This is a roster that’s been gutted, and at least on paper, the departed players were of a different caliber than their replacements.
|Reggie Perry||31.1||17.4||10.1||2.3||1.2||0.8||NBA Draft|
|Nick Weatherspoon||30.3||11.6||3.5||4.1||0.4||0.9||NBA Draft|
|Robert Woodard||33.1||11.4||6.5||1.3||1||1.1||NBA Draft|
|Prince Oduro||4||1.2||0.9||0||0.1||0||transfer/South Florida|
|Devin Butts||3.5||1||0.3||0||0||0.2||transfer/UL Lafayette|
The impressive part about Mississippi State’s roster attrition following the 2019-20 season is that the Bulldogs got hit at both the front end and the back end.
On the one hand, Mississippi State had four players who averaged in double figures scoring last season, and all four are gone. Sixth man Tyson Carter graduated, while Reggie Perry, Nick Weatherspoon, and Robert Woodard II all declared for the NBA Draft. The loss of Perry — a first-team All-SEC player and, at worst, a second-round draft pick — was probably expected; it’s been at least a decade since players like Perry regularly returned to school. And the loss of Weatherspoon might have been somewhat expected, if only because of an off-court issue that caused him to miss ten games to start last season.
The loss of Woodard, on the other hand, was a big, unexpected blow. The native of nearby Columbus would have been expected to be the focal point of Mississippi State’s offense in 2020-21; instead, he’s off to play professionally, and probably not in the NBA.
At the other end, Mississippi State lost reserves Elias King, Keyshawn Feazell, Devin Butts, and Prince Oduro — none of whom played much in 2019-20, but any of whom could have been expected to step up this season. King was a top 100 recruit and the highest-rated player in Mississippi State’s 2019 class. That none of the four ended up at comparable programs — King went to MTSU, Feazell to McNeese State, Butts to UL Lafayette, and Oduro to South Florida — might be a sign that they weren’t SEC-caliber players, but given the state of Mississippi State’s roster entering this season, well, I don’t know that the Bulldogs could not have used any of them.
|D.J. Stewart Jr.||Soph.||6'6"||205||29.6||8.5||2.5||1.6||0.2||1|
Only four scholarship players who saw action for Mississippi State last season are back — and one of those, sophomore 7-footer Quinten Post, played a total of 21 minutes.
Abdul Ado nearly joined his teammates in the NBA Draft, but withdrew his name in May. The fifth-year senior has good size and the ability to rebound and challenge shots, but he’s never developed much of an offensive game — though he’s a career 60.9 percent shooter from the floor, mostly on chip shots.
The real returnees to watch are in the backcourt. D.J. Stewart played 29.6 minutes per game and started 17 times as a redshirt freshman. He wasn’t terribly efficient for a low-usage player, but given the lack of available options will probably play a much bigger role as a sophomore. The 6’6” in-state product shot 32.9 percent from three-point range. 6’3” sophomore Iverson Molinar had a rough time filling in as Mississippi State’s starting point guard in Nick Weatherspoon’s absence early last season and might be better suited to playing off the ball.
|Jalen Johnson||Sr.||6'6"||210||342||transfer/UL Lafayette|
|Tolu Smith||Soph.||6'10"||245||NR||transfer/Western Kentucky|
As expected, with few returning players, Mississippi State figures to rely heavily on newcomers — and there are eight of them.
The most immediate impact might come from 6’1” freshman Deivon Smith. A product of Loganville, Georgia, Smith is the lone top 100 recruit in the class (in fact, he’s the only player on the team who was a top 100 recruit per the 247 Sports composite) and is a quick, explosive point guard. Given the fact that Mississippi State doesn’t really have another point guard on the roster — Iverson Molinar is as close as it gets — Smith will probably start from day one.
The rest of the class isn’t filled with many players who will make an immediate impact, though given the lack of appealing options on the roster, somebody here is going to have to play early. Graduate transfer Jalen Johnson was a numbers guy on a rather bad UL Lafayette team, where he averaged 15.5 ppg and 6.6 rpg — but his shooting percentages were unimpressive, though his 82.9 percent free throw shooting suggests that he might do better in a reduced role at Mississippi State.
On the high school front, Mississippi State signed the top three recruits in the state of Mississippi, though none of the three (Keondre Montgomery, Derek Fountain, and Cameron Matthews) ranked in the top 200 on 247, and all three — along with Johnson and the fifth high school signee, Andersson Garcia — essentially play the same position. There are some players here who could be interesting pieces down the road, but 2020-21 is all about sorting them out.
Another pair of transfers could help. Mississippi native Javian Davis was granted a waiver for immediate eligibility after transferring from Alabama, where he actually started 14 games as a redshirt freshman. Tolu Smith sat out last year after transferring from Western Kentucky, where he didn’t play much as a freshman, but at least has size.
Mississippi State can basically count on returnees Molinar, Stewart, and Ado starting, and Deivon Smith is the presumptive starter at the point. The fifth starting spot is up for grabs — it could be Javian Davis, or it could be one of the other four freshmen or Jalen Johnson if Mississippi State wants to go with a smaller lineup.
Depth is a different matter. The Bulldogs are scary thin in the backcourt — Smith, Molinar, and Stewart are the only scholarship guards on the roster, and all three will probably have to play big minutes. The frontcourt is much the same; after Ado and Davis, Mississippi State has completely unproven options like Tolu Smith and Quinten Post. But at least there are a jillion wings on the roster.
In one way, Mississippi State might have been the SEC’s hardest-hit team by losses to the NBA Draft. Robert Woodard and Nick Weatherspoon weren’t great players by any stretch, but from all appearances, the Bulldogs weren’t prepared to replace them, and their loss turns what would have been a bit of a transition year in which Mississippi State might have contended for an NCAA Tournament bid into a complete rebuild.
I’ll be clear: I don’t like this roster. D.J. Stewart, Iverson Molinar, and Abdul Ado aren’t bad players by any stretch, but if you’re an SEC team and those are your three best players, you’re probably in trouble. And there’s a good chance that those are, in fact, the Bulldogs’ three best players. The recruiting class has just one top 100 recruit, who will probably be the team’s starting point guard from day one (always a big ask for a non-elite true freshman), along with a bunch of guys who might help down the road but probably aren’t ready to play major roles right away. There’s a graduate transfer with Division I experience, but “numbers guy on a bad Sun Belt team” doesn’t often translate to anything more than a role player in the SEC.
Now, I’ll also admit that this probably isn’t an abjectly terrible team. There are at least a few guys who we know are capable of playing at this level, and Ben Howland is an accomplished head coach. And most of the newcomers are at least interesting even if I don’t think many of them are likely to play major roles in 2020-21. The key in a season like this is to make sure things don’t go too badly and sort out pieces for the future. But all of that usually equates to a team that will struggle in the SEC — and it’s why Mississippi State ends up being a fairly easy pick for 14th place.