2016-2017 SEC basketball preview: Mississippi State Bulldogs

It was a frustrating first year for Ben Howland at Mississippi State last season. Will things turn around this year, or will it be a disappointing second season for Howland in Starkville?

KNOXVILLE,TN - FEBRUARY 03, 2015 - Guard Kevin Punter #0 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the SEC game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Tennessee Volunteers at Thompson Boling Arena in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics

The Bulldogs made a splash last offseason when they hired former UCLA coach Ben Howland. Howland, despite his checkered past, was greeted with excitement upon his hire. However, it was a tough first year for the coach.

The Bulldogs finished with a record of 14-17 (7-11 SEC), finishing 11th in the conference. The Bulldogs did not make a postseason tournament last season.

There is more optimism surrounding this year’s team, though. Howland brought in the ninth-ranked recruiting class in the country, according to 247Sports. But, the media picked the Bulldogs to finish just 10th in the SEC standings this year. Is the media right, or will this team surprise a lot of people this season?

Strengths

During the Rick Ray era, the Bulldogs struggled with one thing more than anything else — finding talented players. Ray never had a top 40 recruiting class during his tenure at Mississippi State. Howland, on the other hand, has signed top-20 classes in both of his first two seasons in Starkville.

Quinndary Weatherspoon was a part of Howland’s first class in Starkville and is the leading returning scorer for the Bulldogs. Weatherspoon scored in double figures in 20 games last season and was selected to the preseason All-SEC second team.

I.J. Ready is a senior for Mississippi State that brings talent to the floor. Ready is the leading returning assist man in the conference at 4.5 assists per game. He will be backed up at the point guard position by two four-star freshmen — Lamar Peters and Tyson Carter.

The Bulldogs also added Xavian Stapleton, who transferred in from Louisiana Tech. The 6-foot-6 inch sophomore averaged 6.7 points a game during his year at Louisiana Tech. Eli Wright is another talented freshman joining Mississippi State this year, and he should be able to provide scoring depth off of the bench. Wright has good size for the wing position, standing at 6-foot-7 inches tall.

Almost the entire frontcourt for the Bulldogs graduated, but there certainly isn’t a lack of talent down low. Mario Kegler comes in as the headliner to this year’s class, and his time at Oak Hill Academy — one of the premier prep schools in the country — should help him adjust to the college game. Abdul Ado is also another freshman who will be ready to compete physically. Ado stands at 6-foot-11 inches tall and weighs in at around 235 pounds. Sophomore Aric Holman is the lone returning big man, although he only averaged 1.9 points per game last season.

Weaknesses

There is almost no experience on this Bulldogs team. There were several key contributors that left the team in the offseason, leaving talented — but inexperienced — players to replace them.

The biggest loss for Mississippi State may not have come from those who graduated, but from the one player who transferred. Malik Newman came into his freshman year last season with more hype around him than any Mississippi State player since Jarvis Varnardo. Newman averaged 11.3 per game during his freshman season, but decided to transfer to Kansas at season’s end. His loss will be felt heavily by the Bulldogs.

The frontcourt is going to have to rely on freshmen the entire season. There is definitely talent in this group, but it’s going to be tough for the freshman to go through an entire season without a veteran leader in the group.

Three-point shooting may be another weakness for the Bulldogs. Teams clogged driving lanes for the Bulldogs last season, as they only shot 33.4 percent from behind the arc. This number was only 10th best in the conference last season and just 235th in the country.

Players to Watch

G Quinndary Weatherspoon, Soph. — With the loss of Malik Newman, Weatherspoon’s scoring ability will be desperately needed on this young team. He will be called upon to be a leader with the lack upperclassmen on the squad. Weatherspoon earned 17 starts last year while posting double-digit scoring efforts 20 times. He also scored over 20 on two separate occasions for the Bulldogs. He will be relied on this year for even more scoring in the backcourt.

G Eli Wright, Fr. — Mississippi State will not have much presence off of its bench this season. Wright will be called upon for that bench presence. Wright averaged 23.6 points a game at the prep school 22 Feet Academy last year. Wright also averaged 15.3 points and shot 61.9 percent from the floor while Mississippi State was in Italy this summer. He will be the main bench presence for Ben Howland and the Bulldogs this season.

F Mario Kegler, Fr. — Plain and simple, Kegler is more than likely going to have to start from day one for the Bulldogs. Kegler comes in as the most hyped player of the incoming freshmen for Mississippi State. He averaged 18.5 points a game during his senior season at Oak Hill Academy. He will be depended upon to score for the Bulldogs this season. However, he will be needed more in the rebounding department — the Bulldogs finished 11th in rebounding in the SEC last season.

Matchups to Watch

Nov. 17 vs UCF — The Bulldogs don’t have many marquee non-conference matchups this season. However, the Charleston Classic could provide them a few opportunities. Against what should be a decent UCF team, they will have the chance to prove themselves to a wider audience. If the team can get by UCF, Mississippi State may potentially have the opportunity to play against the defending national champions Villanova in this tournament as well.

Ole Miss — This will always be the biggest game for both of these schools. With both teams having a home game against the other, there will be opportunities for the in-state rivals to win bragging rights over the other. To add to the stakes, the Rebels were predicted to finish one spot ahead of the Bulldogs in the preseason rankings. Expect two close contests in both of these games. The Bulldogs travel to Oxford on Jan. 31 and host Ole Miss in Starkville on Feb. 21.

Feb. 7 @ Auburn — This is a game that could have a direct impact on which team plays on the first day of the SEC tournament. Auburn is predicted to finish in the dreaded 11th spot, just one spot behind Mississippi State in the conference standings. Auburn is also a very young and talented team just like the Bulldogs. The coaching matchup between Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland is another aspect that will be very interesting to watch in this matchup.

Prediction

The future is potentially very bright for the Bulldogs. However, the potential will remain just potential this year. Expect a very similar finish to the season as last year’s for Mississippi State and no postseason tournament.

Edited by Adam Milliken

Featured image by Andrew Bruckse, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics