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Hudson column: Howland looks for experience to pay dividends this season

 

Brett Hudson

 

 

STARKVILLE 

 

At the lowest of times, it was a statement of the unfortunate fact; in others, it was reason for optimism for the future. In either case, every time Mississippi State men's basketball coach Ben Howland said it -- and he said it often -- it was true. 

 

MSU was the youngest team in America last season, according to college basketball advanced statistician Ken Pomeroy. With only one player of note, Mario Kegler, gone from last year's team and three noteworthy additions to go with the newfound experience, MSU finds out the value of experience this winter. 

 

Today, MSU will send Howland and guards Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters to Nashville for SEC Media Day to preview the season. While they're there, the media will vote to set its own expectation for MSU's season within the conference; for MSU's expectations on a national level, there lies a precedent in prior youngest teams in America. 

 

The first thing that stands out when looking at Pomeroy's recent youngest teams: MSU is going against the grain. 

 

Of the last seven teams to earn the honor of Pomeroy's youngest team in the nation, very few stayed the course with that same crew of players like MSU is set up to do. 

 

The 2010-2011 Stetson, 2011-2012 St. Johns, 2012-2013 Texas and 2013-2014 Kentucky teams all heavily leaned on incoming freshmen, transfers or in some cases both to remedy their woes the next season. (The 2014-2015 Binghamton team stuck with the same core but was still in the aftermath of an academic scandal that did its own number on the program, outside of the youth.) 

 

The two good examples from that sample of what MSU can do with extra experience are the 2011-2012 Presbyterian team and last year's Bradley team. 

 

Presbyterian's youthful team won just five games, one game in the Big South, and lost its only game in the conference tournament. The experience gained the Blue Hose a six-game improvement in conference play, seven games overall and wins over two major conference schools: Auburn and Wake Forest. Bradley improved its win total from five to 13 while winning a game in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. 

 

Those programs vary from MSU in the obvious way of previous win totals. MSU's young team went 16-16, which is likely more indicative of the different realities for major conference programs and mid-major programs: MSU gets to host teams from struggling mid-major conferences, while programs like Bradley and Presbyterian were the ones going to the SEC or Big 12 schools and taking beatings. 

 

The true story lies in their national ratings. 

 

Pomeroy's roster experience ratings are an off-shoot of his true ratings that rank teams based on offensive and defensive efficiency, strength of schedule and other factors. Presbyterian's young team ranked 329th of 347 Division I teams; just a year later, they were No. 252. Bradley made a very similar jump, going from 322 to 217. 

 

A to-scale jump for MSU, No. 88 in Pomeroy's rankings last season, would catapult MSU near the bubble to make the NCAA Tournament, but on the wrong side of it. That's exactly what I expect entering the season. 

 

A more experienced and likely more talented MSU team is likely to improve its SEC record, even in the face of an improving conference, but be hurt by a non-conference schedule with two major conference opponents (Cincinnati and Dayton) and only one game outside of the state of Mississippi, giving MSU previous little opportunity to collect road wins the committee values. 

 

But, realistically, this season is not about making the NCAA Tournament -- although everyone within the program will almost certainly disagree. As the two comparably built predecessors before MSU, this season is about building a foundation for a possible Tournament bid in 2018-19. 

 

Consider the program on track. 

 

Brett Hudson is the Mississippi State beat writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at bhudson@cdispatch.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Brett_Hudson.

 

 

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