Slimantics: For MSU men, the Q turned out to be the A

 

Mississippi State Bulldogs guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) shoots the ball over Texas A&M Aggies guard Savion Flagg (1) and forward Christian Mekowulu (21) during the first half at Humphrey Coliseum on March 9. The senior has helped lead his team to what promises to be its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009.

Mississippi State Bulldogs guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) shoots the ball over Texas A&M Aggies guard Savion Flagg (1) and forward Christian Mekowulu (21) during the first half at Humphrey Coliseum on March 9. The senior has helped lead his team to what promises to be its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009. Photo by: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

 

Slim Smith

 

 

If you were among the 9,931 fans who turned out to Humphrey Coliseum on Nov. 14, 2015, to watch the rebirth of Mississippi State men's basketball, your hopes probably rested on one of two people. 

 

The Saturday night game against Eastern Washington marked the debut of MSU's new coach, Ben Howland, whose credentials alone inspired confidence in a basketball revival. 

 

In 19 seasons before arriving in Starkville, Howland had led three different programs to a combined 10 NCAA appearances, including three straight Final Fours at UCLA. That was heady stuff for an MSU team whose last NCAA appearance came in 2009. 

 

You may have also looked to the most heralded freshman to ever arrive on the MSU campus, Malik Newman, a McDonald's All-American and five-star prospect who was placed on the preseason All-SEC team before ever taking the court. Though it was generally accepted Newman would be MSU's first "one-and-done" player (as it turned out, he was, but not in the way anyone could have imagined), Newman's presence alone fueled hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid. 

 

So on that Saturday night, if you had one eye on Howland and the other on Newman, you may not have noticed a long, skinny freshman guard from Canton, who seemed perfectly fine outside the spotlight. 

 

That night, Bulldog fans had to wait to see Newman make his debut until the following Monday because of an injury, but the kid from Canton did pretty good in his first college game -- 12 points (5 of 8 from the field with a pair of 3s in as many attempts) in 23 minutes. 

 

After the game, Howland briefly noted the performance of his "other" freshman guard. 

 

"He's just so cool," Howland said. "He doesn't get ruffled. 

 

"The kid has a chance." 

 

 

 

Back in the Dance 

 

This evening, the Bulldogs will gather to watch the NCAA Selection Show to find out who and where they will play. MSU, 23-10, is a lock to make the tournament and, in doing so, break a 10-year NCAA drought. 

 

State is projected as a No. 5 or 6 seed by most accounts. 

 

Also tonight, Howland will become the first coach in NCAA history to lead four programs to the tournament. After four years of steady, if not spectacular progress, Howland has fulfilled the hopes that first flickered to life on that November Saturday. 

 

Newman, of course, is long gone. As a freshman, he averaged 11.2 points per game, but shot just 39 percent and MSU finished a disappointing 13-19. In the offseason, Newman transferred to Kansas, sat out a year, had one spectacular season for the Jayhawks and then moved on to the NBA, fulfilling his personal destiny if not MSU's. 

 

As for the unruffled kid from Canton, it turns out Quinndary Weatherspoon did have a chance, all right. 

 

Going into the NCAA Tournament, "Q" as he is known, is third on MSU's all-time scoring list with 1,985 points. This season, the senior led the SEC in scoring in conference games (19.4 points per game) and was selected as a first-team All-SEC player for his efforts. 

 

 

 

The decline of the program 

 

In the 1990s and 2000s, Mississippi State basketball was an event. Fans packed into Humphrey Coliseum and trips to Starkville were generally miserable for opponents. Top teams didn't win at the Hump so much as they survived. The Bulldogs seemed always in the hunt, and even in years where they fell short of the NCAA Tournament, they always seemed to have one or two big upsets. 

 

In 1996, MSU put together its best season in history, whipping Kentucky in the SEC Tournament final and rolling all the way to its first (and only) NCAA Tournament Final Four. 

 

While State never managed to reach that level of success again, year-in and year-out the Bulldogs were consistently in the conversation. 

 

Under Rick Stansbury, the Bulldogs made it to the tournament six times in 14 seasons. But after three straight years of missing it, an impatient administration fired Stansbury shortly after the 2011-12 season. 

 

Instead of a remedy, the coaching change turned out to be a disaster. MSU lost 60 of 97 games over three years and Rick Ray was fired after the 2014-15 season. Attendance and interest in Bulldog basketball had not been so low since the 1970s. 

 

The Bulldogs had fallen off the edge of the college basketball earth. 

 

 

 

Steady, if unspectacular 

 

The Bulldogs' renaissance has not taken the form most people imagined four years ago. 

 

MSU has not exploded back into relevance: It has steadily, methodically built its way back. 

 

While it will be up to Howland to sustain and build off this year's break-through season, if you are looking for the face of this four-year journey, it is Q who best personifies the trip. 

 

In his four seasons at State, Q has rarely commanded the spotlight in the way star players generally do. He's the kind of player who seems to glide through games, the sort who can score 20 points and fill up a stat sheet with most hardly noticing. 

 

He's an opponent's nightmare in the clutch (he's had five game-winning shots in the final five seconds of games), but he's generally not the player who demands the ball or dominates the spotlight. 

 

The same can be said of the Bulldogs' revival. 

 

Wins and attendance have improved modestly, reliably, yet that climb is noticeably lacking in one area where those old teams always showed up. 

 

Howland has won 78 of 113 games, but he's still looking for that signature win over a highly-ranked team, the kind of win that inspires and ignites a fan base. 

 

It is a renaissance without a masterpiece, so far. 

 

As Q leaves the stage sometime this month, the Bulldogs are again relevant, although there is work that remains to be done. 

 

Those who remember the old days and the old successes understand that much. 

 

The Bulldogs are back, even if not all the way. 

 

 

 

On the air 

 

  • WHAT: NCAA Tournament Selection Show 

     

  • WHEN: Today, 5 p.m. 

     

  • CHANNEL: CBS

     

  • Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

     

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