After finishing 16-16 and making it to the second round of the SEC tournament last season, the Mississippi State University men’s basketball team is coming off its most successful season since the 2011-12 year.
Last year was a developmental season, as the roster consisted of only one senior and one junior, with the rest of the team being sophomores and freshmen. Of the nine players who played over 10 minutes per game last season, eight of them were underclassman. MSU was the second youngest team in the nation last season, and managed to finish with a .500 record, something which bodes well for the future of the program and this upcoming season.
Sports Illustrated ranked every Division 1 basketball program in the country in a preseason poll and the Bulldogs were ranked 48th. If the Bulldogs can finish the season as a top 50 team, they would be in the hunt for a NCAA tournament selection and certainly a NIT invitation.
However, head coach Ben Howland does not put much stock into preseason polls.
“I never did get caught up in the early season predictions,” Howland said. “Anything is possible.”
If the Bulldogs are to finish as a top 50 team, they must improve significantly on offense. Last season, MSU finished ranked at the 193rd offense in the nation and only averaged 72.5 points a game.
Howland talked about the offensive identity of this year’s team at media day.
“We want to push it every time we get it to try and take advantage of our quickness and gain a numbers advantage,” Howland said. “We also want to create offense with our defense by creating turnovers.”
The Bulldogs ranked 143rd in team possessions a year ago. Increasing the pace and being more of a run-and-gun team should allow the Bulldogs to get more possessions, attempt more shots and play less in the half court, where it is harder for young teams to execute consistently.
The team is led by a trio of juniors in guard Quinndary “Q” Weatherspoon, and forwards Aric Holman and Xavian Stapleton. All three are expected to contribute to this year’s team. The trio discussed new attitudes and ways the team had improved from last season.
Stapleton said the team has grown closer as time has gone on.
“Our chemistry and work ethic is different. Our guys are always in the gym outside of practice on their own,” Stapleton said. “Everyone just loves each other and it’s like a family around here, and because of that we can be successful.”
Weatherspoon focused on the one thing he can control, his effort.
“The main thing I want to improve from last year is my effort," Weatherspoon said. "I have to play hard each and every play. A lot of coaches look at me as an All-SEC caliber player, but [there are] a lot of good players in the SEC so I just have to work hard.”
Holman, a standout defensive player, said he has the opportunity to work more on his offensive game since MSU now has eligible Abdul Ado.
“I have worked on being more confident on the offensive side,” Holman said. “Usually I have been the rim protector and rebounder, but with Abdul [Ado], I can be more confident on the offensive side now, since we have another defensive presence on our team.”
Ado is a redshirt freshman and one of the key pieces from Howland’s loaded 2016 recruiting class, who was ranked 10th in the country. Howland and many of his teammates raved about Ado's potential, who is expected to be a big contributor this year.
He was forced to sit out last year for eligibility reasons but will make his debut at some point this season. He was sidelined the last few weeks of practice and during the first scrimmage game due to a quad injury.
“There’s no exact timetable for my return, but we’re hoping I can be there for the first game,” Ado said. “I know I am going to be nervous, but I am really excited to play my first game and just finally play basketball again. My main role will be blocking shots, rebounding and running the floor.”