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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

Thursday’s Things To Know: No. 6 Michigan State outlasts Nebraska, Ja Morant dunks all over the OVC and the Pac-12 has a sole leader

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There wasn’t a matchup of top-25 teams Thursday, but there were competitive games across the country, starting in Lincoln with Michigan State and Nebraska and ending in Tempe with Oregon State and Arizona State. Pl, there was a dunk that may have qualified as national emergency. Here’s what you need to know:

NO. 6 MICHIGAN STATE STAYS PERFECT IN THE B1G WITH WIN AT NEBRASKA

Nebraska looked like it had the sixth-ranked Spartans on the ropes in Lincoln with the score knotted at 44 just inside the midpoint of the second half. Then, though, Michigan State ripped off a 7-0 run and never looked back – despite an ugly final minute – to claim a 70-64 win over the Huskers to move to 16-2 on the year and 7-0 in the Big Ten.

The win is most notable for the Spartans as it once again came without the services of Joshua Langford or Nick Ahrens, both of whom continue to be sidelined with injuries. With both on the shelf, Cassius Winston put together a game to bolster his player of the year candidacy, scoring a career-best 29 points on 9 of 15 shooting while dishing out six assists and grabbing three rebounds. Winston doesn’t have the game that always pops off the TV screen, but he’s the type of veteran point guard that can help propel a team to a national title, especially if Langford comes back healthy and productive.

For the Huskers, it’s certainly not a bad loss given Michigan State’s profile, but the opportunity cost has to sting. Last year Tim Miles’ team racked up wins, but missed out on the tournament because not enough of them were of the quality variety. Here, they had a top-10 team staggered with less than 10 minutes to play at home but couldn’t close the deal. The good news for them is they’ve already got a couple of nice wins on the resume, but most importantly the B1G isn’t the wasteland it was last year, leaving them with bountiful opportunities to pick up meaningful victories before March. To do that, though, they can’t have James Palmer, Jr. going 6 of 21 from the floor like he did against the Spartans. To Palmer’s credit, though, he got to the line 11 times and made every attempt to finish with 24 points while grabbing eight rebounds and recording three assists. Shooting 5 of 26 (19.6 percent) from 3-point range won’t win you too many games, either.

 

STAY OUT OF JA MORANT’S WAY

If you wanna jump with Ja Morant, God bless you, but it ain’t going to work out well for you. Eastern Illinois learned that lesson Thursday as Morant unleashed yet another must-see dunk.

On top of that, the future lottery pick had 27 points and nine assists while shooting 11 of 16 from the floor and 4 of 5 from 3-point range. He’s an unsolvable problem for the OVC.

 

WASHINGTON IS ALONE IN FIRST IN THE PAC-12

Congratulations to the Washington Huskies, the last remaining undefeated in Pac-12 play. It may not be an honor, but it’s something, at least.

Mike Hopkins’ team blasted Stanford (80-64) while Arizona lost at home to Oregon (59-54) and Oregon State was behind big before making things tight in Tempe and eventually losing to Arizona State (70-67), which has now won three of four. There’s been plenty written about the Pac-12, but the league continues to do itself damage, most notable with the Wildcats taking a loss in Tuscon to a depleted Ducks team. That’s not going to do much for the conference’s reputation or their own NCAA tournament resume.

Zach Norvell leads No. 5 Gonzaga over Loyola Marymount 73-55

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Zach Norvell Jr. scored 17 points and No. 5 Gonzaga used a stout defense to beat Loyola Marymount 73-55 on Thursday night, the eighth consecutive win for the Bulldogs since a pair of losses knocked them out of the top spot in The AP Top 25.

Brandon Clarke added 13 points, Corey Kispert 12 and Rui Hachimura 10 for Gonzaga (17-2, 4-0 West Coast), which beat Loyola Marymount for the 20th straight time. The Zags have won 18 straight games at home.

James Batemon led Loyola Marymount (13-5, 1-3) with 12 points.

Loyola used a slow-down offense and stingy defense to keep the scoring low, and it mostly accomplished that goal.

Gonzaga, which averages 92 points a game, led just 17-16 midway through the first half.

The Zags went on a 19-6 run the rest of the half to take a 36-22 lead at halftime. The Lions shot only 36 percent in the first and committed 11 turnovers.

A 3-pointer by Norvell highlighted a 14-2 Gonzaga run to open the second half that lifted the Bulldogs to a 50-24 lead. Meanwhile, the Lions were missing eight of their first 10 shots.

Loyola Marymount made just five of its first 20 shots in the second half, and fell behind 61-35 with less than 8 minutes left.

BIG PICTURE

Loyola Marymount: The Lions opened the season 11-1, but have dropped off since … The Lions ranked 13th in the NCAA in defense at 61.2 points per game … Their last win in this lop-sided series was in 2010. They have not won in Spokane since 1991 … The Lions have already surpassed last season’s 11 wins.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are cruising toward another WCC title, outscoring conference foes by nearly 30 points per game… The Zags suffered back-to-back losses to No. 3 Tennessee and at No. 13 North Carolina in mid-December and have not lost since … They lead the nation in field goal shooting at 52.6 percent and are second in scoring at 92.2 points per game … Gonzaga and Marquette are the only programs with both men’s and women’s teams in the Top 15.

UP NEXT

Loyola Marymount hosts Pepperdine on Saturday.

Gonzaga plays at last place Portland on Saturday.

Cassius Winston’s career-high 29 lifts No. 6 Spartans over Huskers

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Four nights after Tom Izzo called out Cassius Winston for his poor play in Michigan State’s previous game, the Spartans’ star point guard responded better than his coach would have expected.

Winston scored a career-high 29 points to go over 1,000 for his career, had six assists and played tough defense on Glynn Watson Jr. while leading No. 6 Michigan State past Nebraska 70-64 on Thursday night.

“I told him before the game, ‘You’re going to get measured on how you bounce back,’ ” Izzo said.

Winston more than passed the test.

“Cassius, the way he ran that whole thing, he was like a quarterback dissecting a defense,” Izzo said.

In a win at Penn State on Sunday, Winston had seven turnovers, and his 11 points were his fewest since Florida held him to 10 on Dec. 8. Izzo told reporters it was one of the worst games Winston had played in his three seasons.

Of the Spartans’ first 18 field goals against Nebraska, Winston scored eight of them and had assists on five others. He held Watson, the Huskers’ hottest player the last week, to 3-of-13 shooting from the field and eight points.

Izzo’s criticism motivated him, he said.

“Just get back on track, playing at the level I was playing at,” Winston said. “I want to play at the highest standard, my best ability. I’ve got to do that for this team and put us in the best situation.”

Michigan State (16-2, 7-0) won its 11th straight game overall and extended its school-record Big Ten winning streak to 19 games. The Cornhuskers (13-5, 3-4) had their school-record 20-game home win streak end.

Nick Ward added 15 points and 10 rebounds for his second straight double-double. He also made his first 3-pointer of the season and second of his career.

“That should keep him happy for a week or 10 days,” Izzo said.

The Spartans led by 12 points in the final 2 minutes, but Nebraska cut the lead to four twice before Matt McQuaid made a pair of free throws for his first points with 14.2 seconds to put the game away.

Nebraska shot a season-low 32.8 percent and was just 5 of 26 on 3-pointers, 1 of 12 in the second half.

“I wasn’t very pleased with our offense in any way, shape or form,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

James Palmer, who led Nebraska with 24 points, struggled mightily from the field, going 6 of 21, but he made all 11 of his free throws.

“Palmer’s a good player, and I feel like I did a pretty good job on him,” McQuaid said. “I just tried to do what I could. He’s a bigger, more physical guard. I tried to get a couple charges, but things weren’t going my way. So I had to figure out different ways to guard him.”

Nebraska had hoped to build off its win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday night but couldn’t get going. The Huskers were trying for their first win over a top-10 opponent in nine tries.

“You need to build and play from the front against these teams,” Miles said.

He found no consolation in playing the Spartans close for most of the game, which had 11 lead changes and six ties.

“There are no moral victories,” Miles said. “I’m utterly mad and disappointed.”

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: This was a gut-check win for the Spartans, who were without Joshua Langford (ankle) for a fifth straight game and Kyle Ahrens (back) for a second in a row.

Nebraska: The Huskers were feeling pretty good about themselves after an impressive win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday, and they had an amped standing-room crowd on hand. But they could never find rhythm until it was too late against the nation’s No. 3 team in field-goal defense.

HE SAID IT

“We were paranoid of this game. They didn’t make shots tonight. Those things happen sometimes. Tim’s got a great team that’s going to be an NCAA Tournament team, and I hope they keep on winning now.” — Izzo.

UP NEXT

Michigan State hosts No. 19 Maryland on Monday.

Nebraska visits Rutgers on Monday.

WATCH: Ja Morant can’t be stopped

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The Ohio Valley Conference is just not equipped to deal with Ja Morant.

The Murray State guard just keeps dunking on anyone and everyone that stands in his way, the latest victim coming Thursday night at Eastern Illinois.

There’s just so much to love about this dunk. The athleticism. The explosiveness. The aggressiveness. The ferocity. It’s thunder meeting lightning at the rim.

If there’s someone who can stop Morant, a likely top-10 pick in June, it sure ain’t in the OVC.

UCLA, USC meet amid rocky seasons for crosstown rivals

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — A fired coach. A transfer. Suspensions. Injuries. UCLA and Southern California have experienced it all barely halfway through the season.

Things began promisingly enough for the Bruins. They were an AP Top 25 team and were predicted to finish second in the Pac-12 before early consecutive losses to ranked Michigan State and North Carolina knocked them out. Then came stunning defeats at home to mid-majors Belmont and Liberty. Those precipitated the biggest shocker of all: coach Steve Alford’s firing on New Year’s Eve.

Murry Bartow was quickly tabbed as interim coach for the Bruins (10-7, 3-1 Pac-12). They’ve won three out of four games under him.

“We had a lot of ups and downs,” UCLA freshman Moses Brown said, “but I think we caught our stride and the sky is the limit for us.”

USC was predicted to finish fifth in a weakened Pac-12. The Trojans got off to a 5-2 start before dropping four in a row. They regrouped to reel off four straight wins, including a home sweep to open conference play. But they dropped a pair on the road, where freshman Kevin Porter Jr. got suspended last weekend.

In the midst of rocky seasons, the crosstown rivals meet Saturday at Galen Center. The Bruins have won four in a row in the series and are 8-4 at USC’s arena since it opened.

“Coming off a two-game losing streak, we’re kind of hoping this is a game that we can bounce back,” USC’s Nick Rakocevic said. “We want to be put in a good position for the rest of the Pac-12.”

Both teams would likely need to win the Pac-12 tournament title to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Last March, the Bruins played in the First Four for the first time in school history and lost. The Trojans were snubbed by the selection committee despite finishing second in the Pac-12 for the first time in 25 years after losing twice to UCLA.

“We play UCLA twice, but there’s 16 other games. You have to do well the rest of the league,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Whether you win or lose these games, yes, it’s great for a rivalry, it’s great for another win in your conference, but it’s a long Pac-12 season. We try to keep that in perspective no matter who we play even if it’s UCLA.”

The Trojans (9-8, 2-2) have played over half their games with eight or fewer scholarship players because of injuries and the recent transfer of Jordan Usher, who was suspended before he left.

“Nothing surprises us at this point,” Enfield said. “The injuries and distractions have had a significant impact on our team.”

Porter was back practicing with the Trojans this week, but he hasn’t been cleared to play in games.

“He’s working on some things off the court. He has very clear expectations that he has to meet,” Enfield said. “As he progresses, we will reevaluate his status.”

Bartow said the Bruins will prepare as if Porter will play Saturday. Before his suspension, Porter missed time with a leg injury.

USC’s Bennie Boatwright, a local product who was recruited by UCLA, has been on an offensive tear in his last seven games. He scored a career-high 37 points in an overtime loss at Oregon State and is averaging a team-leading 17.1 points. The Bruins are led by Kris Wilkes at 17.3 points a game.

“Inside, they’ve got some really, really good players,” said Bartow, who has the Bruins playing at a faster pace and zipping the ball around.

One of the intriguing matchups on Saturday will be the 6-foot-11 Rakocevic and Brown, who at 7-1 is the tallest player at UCLA in decades. Rakocevic averages 14.9 points and a league-leading 9.5 rebounds. Brown averages 11.9 points and 9.0 rebounds

“It’s going to be fun going against somebody like that,” Rakocevic said.

A famous name associated with the rivalry won’t be on the court.

USC’s Chuck O’Bannon, the son of former UCLA star Charles O’Bannon, is expected to seek a medical redshirt. The sophomore broke his pinky finger in practice in November, had surgery, got the cast off in December and it hasn’t healed properly. He’s still has pain, too, Enfield said.

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