JACKSON — Nothing gets a point across quite like the clanging of a cowbell.
That’s all Malik Newman needed to fire up Mississippi State’s fan base on Friday. Newman, a five-star shooting guard from Jackson-Callaway High, walked calmly into a ceremony where he was set to announce where he planned to play college basketball.
Surrounded by friends and family with an audience watching the online stream of his decision, Newman smiled, reached under the table before him and produced a cowbell, ringing it twice.
That gesture made Newman’s collegiate destination known and immediately injected life into MSU’s program.
“It was a great feeling, one of those feelings that you can’t explain,” Newman said of the moment. “It feels good to get this process behind me, and it’s a great day to be a Bulldog.”
Newman’s commitment — a non-binding verbal agreement — became official later Friday when he signed and delivered scholarship papers to MSU, where Ben Howland, who was hired March 21 to be the team’s head coach, was waiting.
“To get a great player is one thing,” Howland said, “but what makes him great is everywhere he goes, he wins. That’s what he’s going to help us do.”
For Howland, who coached 18 eventual NBA players during his 10-season stint as UCLA’s head coach from 2004 until 2013, the landing of Newman was a major accomplishment. Inheriting a team that won 37 games in three seasons under former coach Rick Ray, Howland vowed that he would pursue and sign the best players in the state during his time in Starkville.
In Newman, Howland found just that.
Best high school player in Miss.
A 6-foot-3, 175-pounder, Newman is ranked as the top player coming out of high school in Mississippi.
A high-profile prospect for the entirety of his high school career, Newman was named the nation’s top freshman by Maxpreps.com in 2011. A McDonald’s All-American during his senior season, Newman chose MSU over interest from LSU, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Kansas.
Reaction over Newman’s decision was swift and broad in scope.
“Malik is a great player and an elite player,” said Jerry Meyer, National Director of Scouting for 247sports.com. “He had to struggle through the blessing and curse of being a high-profile player at such a young age. He had so much to live up to and got a ton of pressure locally. But Malik has embraced that pressure of wanting to be a college player and wanting to play in the local region and at Mississippi State.”
As a senior, Newman averaged 29.7 points per game, flashing a next-level scoring ability that earned his praise as “one of the best pure scorers in the country,” from Meyer.
He will join an MSU team that struggled with scoring in Ray’s final season.
MSU, in winning just 13 games, averaged 61.2 points per game – Newman averaged nearly half that by himself – and ranked 13th of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference in points per game.
For his part, Newman watched MSU closely, and he saw opportunity.
“I think they have a good team,” Newman said of the Bulldogs. “I watched them closely, and in every game, they were close. I think they needed that one guy to help them get over the hump. That was a calling for me, and with the hiring of Ben Howland, it felt like the right place to be.”
‘I don’t think you can quantify it’
Newman’s decision gives the Bulldogs the top two prospects from the state of Mississippi during the 2015 recruiting cycle. He will be joined in Starkville by 6-foot-4 guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, a wing player from Velma Jackson High who is ranked as one of the nation’s top 100 players by ESPN.com.
But Newman is the jewel of Howland’s first recruiting class and the atmosphere around MSU’s athletic program received a boost with Newman’s decision. MSU football coach Dan Mullen tweeted his approval, as did a number of former MSU players, like former All-SEC guard Timmy Bowers.
In the room for Newman’s ceremony was former MSU coach Richard Williams, who led the Bulldogs to the 1996 Final Four.
Asked what it meant for MSU to land a player of Newman’s magnitude, Williams did not mince words.
“I don’t think you can quantify it,” Williams said. “It says a lot about Ben Howland, what he brings to the table as a coach.”
For Newman it was the culmination of a years-long recruitment that featured offers from teams across the country, and ended with two rings of a cowbell.
Asked afterward how long he had known that MSU was the place for him, Newman simply smiled.
“I guess I’ve known for like a week or so,” said Newman. “It’s just that God put all the signs up for me to go there. It’s where I am supposed to be.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat