Many teams would rather avoid the NIT. But for Mississippi State, three NIT wins — including road victories at Baylor and Louisville — represented the Bulldogs’ first taste of postseason basketball since 2012 and resulted in a trip to Madison Square Garden.
Then Mississippi State kept that momentum when all four players who initially declared for the NBA Draft — Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters and Aric Holman — opted to return to Starkville. Peters was the only significant risk, but his stock declined a bit during an up-and-down sophomore season.
That quartet, plus center Abdul Ado, reserve guard Tyson Carter and a top-20 recruiting class, have Ben Howland believing his fourth team will be the one to break an NCAA Tournament drought that dates to 2009. “We’ve been together here for a couple of years now and guys are really into what our potential is this season at Mississippi State,” he says, “and it’s just exciting to go into the season with so much optimism to really do something special this year.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Ben Howland
2017-18 RECORD (SEC): 25-12 (9-9)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NIT: Lost to Penn State 75-60 in the semifinals
G Xavian Stapleton (6.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
G Eli Wright (3.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg)
Holman was Mississippi State’s most reliable player in 2017-18, leading the team in rebounding (6.7 ppg) and 3-point percentage (.440) while ranking second in scoring (10.9 ppg). And while the 6'11" Ado has the reputation of being a stronger rim protector, the 6'10" Holman actually had a better block percentage.
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The question is whether Holman and Ado continue to play together as MSU’s two primary frontcourt options, or whether Howland will elect to spend more time pairing one with 6'10" freshman Reggie Perry, a McDonald’s All-American. Perry has the skills to play both the 3 and 4, though his range doesn’t quite extend out to the 3-point line (yet). He should make an impact on the boards.
Junior college transfer Jethro Tshisumpa, a 6'10" big man, was a late addition who will add size off the bench, along with junior E.J. Datcher and sophomore KeyShawn Feazell.
The primary reason Mississippi State did not make the NCAA Tournament last season was its shooting: The Bulldogs made only 31.9 percent of their 3-point attempts, ranking 12th in the SEC and 323rd nationally. The biggest culprits were the guards; Peters and the Weatherspoons combined to hit 29.3 percent from 3-point range. There is hope for a rebound: Quinndary Weatherspoon and Peters both shot better than 36 percent two years ago.
Despite his shooting woes, Quinndary Weatherspoon enjoyed another fine season, leading the team in scoring at 14.4 points per game while also adding 6.0 rebounds — not bad for a 6'4" guard. His brother, Nick — the higher-rated recruit of the two — is poised for a big jump after averaging 10.8 points as a freshman. Peters’ scoring dropped a bit as a sophomore, but his assists climbed from 3.4 to 4.5 per game.
Carter, the only guard with a respectable 3-point shot a year ago (34.1 percent), is back after averaging 8.9 points.
A pair of 6'6" wings — Robert Woodard and D.J. Stewart — will push for playing time on the perimeter. The quickest path to consistent playing time for the freshmen: providing a shooting threat from the outside.
There are no more excuses. The Bulldogs are talented and experienced, with every projected starter possessing at least one year of collegiate experience and two seniors who have played significant minutes over the past three years. Anything short of a trip to the NCAA Tournament would be a disappointment — and put Howland on the hot seat.
Postseason Prediction: Two & Out
SEC Prediction: 5th