by Kyle Koso
Some impressive milestones are about to be slipped into the pocket of Ben Howland, and every lesson or trick or technique he’s mastered along the way will come in very handy for the 2020-21 Mississippi State men’s team.
Howland is two wins away from 100 overall with the Bulldogs (who take on Clemson at the Space Coast Challenge on Wednesday) and has 499 career victories, with a strong legacy dating back to his days at UCLA, Pittsburgh and Northern Arizona. Last year’s MSU team reached 20 victories and had two players (Robert Woodard II and Reggie Perry) selected in last week’s NBA Draft, but it’s likely going to require some patience in the season to come in the hunt for success.
The top four scorers are gone, there are 13 underclassmen to unravel, and there’s been nothing but intrasquad workouts to help answer questions, thanks to COVID-19 related restrictions. Howland will need a deft touch in figuring out what requires patience and what needs a more stern response.
“We’re all about rising to expectations. It’s the next guy up if someone goes down, and bottom line is what I demand is to do your very best,” he said. "In the classroom and on the basketball floor, that’s what we are teaching and preaching. As long as they are giving it everything, that’s all I can ask.”
In terms of educated guesses, the Bulldogs can proceed knowing there’s been progress in the frontcourt. Abdul Ado started 31 games last year and was a defensive asset at 6-foot-11, with reports saying he’s now more aggressive on offense. Tolu Smith (sophomore transfer from Western Kentucky) is seeing the fruit of hard offseason effort, and fellow transfer Javian Davis (Alabama) is line for minutes thanks to his effectiveness on both ends of floor.
Howland likes his team to play inside-out and make sure his big men get in the flow, but he’ll also turn to two sophomore guards, Iverson Molinar and D.J. Stewart Jr. He’ll be hoping for the Bulldogs to be more careful with the basketball, as they averaged almost 14 per game last year.
“The way we practiced (Monday), you would be right … we turned it over a bunch. There’s no question that’s an issue, but we’re in a rebuilding mode,” Howland said. “We’re very young and inexperienced, so it’s every aspect of the game for us, not just one thing. We’re working on the basics, and that starts with the defensive side the floor, doing a good job on transition defense so we don’t get killed there. Allow the opponent only one shot, contesting shots, help-side defense.
“On offense, we try to push it very time we get it, and if not, we’re try to execute the offense to get good shots. The most important thing is to take good shots, and take care of the basketball. We have a lot to evaluate.”
“I feel like we can play as fast as last year’s team, and we emphasize not turning it over,” said Smith, who played two years of prep basketball in Mississippi before playing in Hawaii as a senior. “In the game of basketball, whoever has less turnovers is most likely to win. And Coach is talking a lot about that.”
Howland said he’s expecting Clemson to be a significant obstacle in terms of a season opener, with the Tigers’ experience and offensive savvy something that may make for a tough night. But he’s seen players emerge in the open space left from those who have departed, and he’s ready to see it play out at full speed.
"When I'm talking about things that I really like, this year we've probably had three guys, Deivon [Smith], Iverson and D.J, who are all great in ball screen actions,” he added. “So, we're going to get all three of those guys in a lot of ball screen situations because they're all really good at reading and creating coming off of ball screens. So, that's probably one of the best things we do right now in terms of our offense are those three guys creating out of situations."