No. 21 Mississippi State: Is Year Four when Ben Howland gets MSU to the tourney?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 21 Mississippi State.


We are heading into Year Four of the Ben Howland Experience in Starkville, and to date, it seems like the story is less what the Bulldogs have accomplished in his tenure and more what they’ve failed to do: Win with the talent that he has brought to Starkvegas.

Howland’s first recruiting class included top ten recruit Malik Newman. In 2016, he had a top ten recruiting class, according to 247 Sports, that included six four-star prospects. This past season his recruiting class didn’t rank all that high — he didn’t needed to bring in many bodies after 2016 — but he did manage to land Nick Weatherspoon, a top 30 recruit that held a five-star designation by some recruiting services. This year’s class is loaded as well, with Reggie Perry — a McDonald’s All-American with serious NBA upside — and four-star wing Robert Woodard the headliners.

Getting talent into the program has not been an issue for Howland.

Winning with that talent, however, has not proven so easy. In three seasons, he has gone just 55-45 overall with a 22-32 record in SEC play. He has not finished over .500 in league play to date, and last year’s run to the semifinals of the NIT was the first time he played in a postseason that wasn’t the SEC tournament.

Keeping that talent in the program has been the most elusive task. Prior to Nick Weatherspoon opting to return for his sophomore season, every player in the top 95 of 247 Sports composite rankings that Howland signed transferred out of the program — Newman, Mario Kegler, Schnider Herard and Eli Wright.

I’m not sure that this is how the Mississippi State administration envisioned it when they hired Howland two years after he was fired by UCLA.

That said, on paper, this should finally be the year that the Bulldogs get over the hump, but can they live up to the expectations they’ll have entering the season?

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MISSISSIPPI STATE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

Is it too simple to state it like this: They have good players at every position?

Sometimes, it just doesn’t have to be complicated.

Let’s break it down position-by-position.

Quinndary Weatherspoon is the star of this team, the best scorer on the roster for the last two years and a senior that will deservedly be named a preseason first-team all-SEC player. He’s very good, as is his brother, sophomore Nick Weatherspoon. Nick did not acclimate all that quickly as a freshman, struggling with his shot, but he was a starter in every game he played and finished third on the team in scoring. And you know what they say, the best thing about freshman is that they become sophomores.

Lamar Peters is turnover-prone and regressed as a shooter during his sophomore season, but he is still a talented lead guard that has some potential as an NBA player, although the hype around him has died down in the last 12 months. He split time as a starter last year with fellow junior Tyson Carter, who is bigger, more athletic and more of an off-guard. That quartet will spend the season battling it out for the three starting spots on the perimeter assuming that they can hold off four-star freshman Robert Woodard, a physically-imposing wing coming into the program with a reputation for being a big-time scorer.

The frontcourt is just as promising. Aric Holman is a former four-star prospect that has developed into a solid SEC big man, averaging 10.9 points, 6.7 boards and 1.8 blocks while shooting 44 percent from three. Abdul Ado was strong in his role as well, scoring around the rim, rebounding the ball and defending the rim as a redshirt freshman. The x-factor — which we’ll get to in a bit — is Reggie Perry, who is probably the most talented player on the floor. Throw in a couple guys at the end of the bench (D.J. Stewart, E.J. Datcher, Jethro Tshisumpa) and there seven or eight guys talented enough to push for a starting spot and a roster that will provide flexibility and lineup versatility with talent at every position.

Yes, Mississippi State needs to shoot the ball better from distance this season, and yes, they need better point guard play (read: fewer turnovers), but that can be worked through. They have talent, depth, competition for positions, experience.

How much more can you ask for?

Quinndary Weatherspoon (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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BUT MISSISSIPPI STATE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

They’re still Mississippi State.

I really don’t mean to say this flippantly, but these are facts: Ben Howland hasn’t been a great basketball coach for a decade now. He hasn’t been bad, per se — he went to three NCAA tournaments in his last five years at UCLA, he won the Pac-12 regular season title in 2013 and he won 25 games just last year — but we are now more than a decade removed Howland reaching his third consecutive Final Four.

To put that into perspective, the last time that UCLA played a game in the Final Four, I had still never sent a tweet and Mariah Carey had a No. 1 song (seriously).

I’m not saying that Mississippi State can’t win with Howland as their head coach. I would never say that. I thought Rick Barnes was washed up and looking to cash in with one last job when he took over at Tennessee after getting run out of Texas. Three years later, he’s the reigning SEC regular season champion returning a team that is going to be ranked in the top ten this preseason and just beat Duke for a top 15 recruit.

I would not be shocked in the least to see Howland lead this group to a top four finish in the SEC and a run to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. My point is, simply, that we are a long way removed from assuming a team is going to hit their ceiling simply because Howland is their head coach.

Reggie Perry, via McDonalds

THE X-FACTOR

Reggie Perry is the crown jewel of Ben Howland’s 2018 recruiting class, a McDonald’s All-American and one of the most interesting — and high-upside — prospects in the class.

“The biggest NBA sleeper in the freshman class,” is how one longtime scout in the state of Georgia described the 6-foot-10 Perry, “if [Ben Howland] doesn’t ruin him.”

That got me to thinking: When was the last time that an elite, five-star prospect that Howland recruited lived up to the hype that he had entering college? Malik Newman didn’t. Neither did the class that included Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, which ultimately got Howland fired. Josh Smith was eventually run out of Los Angeles. J’Mison Morgan was dismissed by two different programs in his college career. Jrue Holiday has turned out to be a pretty good (and underrated) pro, but he went from being the No. 2 player in a recruiting class where B.J. Mullens was ranked No. 1 to the No. 17 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft as six point guards were picked in front of him.

You have to go all the way back to Kevin Love in the Class of 2007 to find a five-star freshman that played for Ben Howland the way you would expect a five-star freshman to play.

Which brings me back to Perry.

For my money, he is the guy that will determine what Mississippi State’s ceiling will be. Howland has good players on their roster. Peters, the Weatherspoons, Holman, Carter. All of those guys are above-average SEC talents and I would not be surprised to see a couple of them end up on an all-SEC team by the end of the season. But Perry is the pro. At 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, he’s more physical than most combo-forwards but more skilled than most power forwards. He’s gifted athletically, he has a face-up game and he space the floor a little bit.

If he can make the kind of impact his talent says he should, he changes the dynamic of what this team is.

But given Howland’s track record with five-star prospects, who knows what will happen.

Aric Holman (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Bulldogs absolutely have the pieces to be a team that makes a run at finishing top four in the SEC this season.

They have guard depth, they have size, they have veterans, they have a proven star in Quinndary Weatherspoon and an incoming freshman with the potential to be a difference-maker in Reggie Perry. Throw in a coach that has been to three Final Fours in his career, and it’s impossible not to like this team on paper.

That said, I just don’t think it’s a guarantee the Bulldogs are going to be good. We’ve already been over some of the narratives that are at play — Mississippi State is Mississippi State, Ben Howland is a decade removed from playing in a Final Four — but there are also some valid concerns about the way this team plays on the court that come into play.

Mississippi State only shot 31.5 percent from three last season, which is a number that is going to have to go up this year. Their three starters on the perimeter — both Weatherspoons and Lamar Peters — all shot under 30 percent from beyond the arc individually.

Those numbers have to be better, as does Mississippi State’s point guard play. The Bulldogs turned the ball over on nearly 20 percent of their possessions last season. Peters had a turnover rate of 22.9 percent. If Mississippi State is serious about being better than they were last year, those guards that look so good on paper have to actually play like it for an entire season.

If they do, Mississippi State should be right there with Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn atop the SEC.

If they don’t, another trip to the NIT isn’t out of the question.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.