STARKVILLE — After two years away from the game, new Mississippi State men’s basketball coach Ben Howland found himself in an interesting spot last weekend.
Donning maroon and white for the first time, Howland won his first game at MSU on a touchdown pass.
Howland, who has reached three Final Fours and has five top-10 finishes in his career, was all smiles Saturday after serving as honorary coach for the White team in the football team’s annual spring football game at Davis Wade Stadium.
“That was a lot of fun,” Howland said. “I really didn’t know what to expect, but being on the field, talking with Dan (Mullen) and the other coaches, it was just a blast.”
The experience was the latest in a blur of activity for Howland, who replaced Rick Ray as coach March 21.
During that span, Howland has shaken hundreds of hands, met his players for the first time, introduced himself to the recruiting world of the deep South, learned the first and last name of all of the writers following the team, and thrown out the first pitch at a MSU baseball game.
“It has been a whirlwind,” Howland said. “Between being on the road to try and get in the game with recruits late, and it is late for that, and then getting a chance to get to know our own kids, it has been incredibly busy.
“But it’s been great, and very rewarding. Every day I am meeting someone new, someone who will become an integral part of my life here. Meeting all the people involved with this great university has been outstanding.”
When he finally had a chance to collect his thoughts after serving as honorary football coach and after performing a guest spot on MSU’s baseball radio broadcast, Howland took time to break down his first 30 days on the job.
First things first
Inheriting a team that won 37 games in the past three seasons, Howland has tried to add talent to the program.
“We were on the road recruiting last weekend and we will be next weekend,” Howland said. “We have two weeks in April where we get to go and talk to kids, so we’ve been taking advantage of that.”
When Howland, who last coached at UCLA, took the job, MSU had three scholarships coming open — departing seniors Roquez Johnson, Trivante Bloodman, and Isaiah Butler — and three signees — guards Tookie Brown and Quinndary Weatherspoon and forward Joseph Strugg — poised to take those scholarships.
But on April 8, Brown, a high-scoring guard from Madison, Georgia, re-opened his recruitment and parted ways with MSU. Howland, who has produced 21 NBA players, including 18 at UCLA, has found plenty of options. The biggest is five-star guard Malik Newman, of Jackson Callaway High School. Newman, the 6-foot-3 son of former MSU standout Horatio Webster, is as the No. 1 shooting guard prospect in the country, according to ESPN.com. Fresh off playing in the McDonald’s All-America game, Newman is also the highest-rated uncommitted prospect in the country by Scout.com.
While NCAA rules prohibit Howland from talking about Newman, national and regional experts acknowledge Howland’s hiring has impacted the recruitment of Newman. On 247sports.com, the number of experts predicting Newman will land in Starkville has doubled in the last month. Newman’s suitors include MSU, LSU, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Kansas, among others.
In leading Callaway to its fourth consecutive Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state championship as a senior, Newman averaged 29.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Newman averaged 26.1 points per game for his four-year career.
But Newman isn’t the only high-profile recruit on Howland’s list. Junior college transfer Ray Kasongo, a 6-9, 235-pound forward from the College of Southern Idaho, was a four-star recruit out of Oak Hill Academy (Virginia) two years ago. He signed with Oregon before ending up at Southern Idaho, where he averaged 6.7 ppg. in limited duty as a freshman.
Kasongo was at MSU this past weekend on an official visit.
Landing high-profile recruits like Kasongo and Newman this late in the process could be a boon for Howland. In his three previous stops — Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh,and UCLA — he inherited tough situations and won quickly, but not immediately. He won eight games in his first year at Northern Arizona, 13 in his initial season at Pittsburgh, and 11 at UCLA. By his third season at each school, he was in the NCAA tournament. He won an average of 27 games in those seasons. At Pittsburgh, he won 29 games and reached the Sweet 16 in 2011-02. At UCLA in 2005-06, he won 32 games and reached the National Championship Game and won 32 games.
With Newman and Kasongo as his primary targets, Howland and his coaching staff have taken aim at a quicker start in Starkville.
Howland also has gotten a jump start on speaking to prospects in the classes of 2016 and 2017.
“We have five seniors,” Howland said, “so this first true recruiting class (2016) is going to be a huge one. We want to hit the ground running.”
While Howland’s ability to recruit will be vital, his ability to get more out of a roster that returns four starters and has five seniors will be a large factor in his initial success.
After the Final Four ended and postseason practice restrictions were lifted, Howland was able to work out each player.
“I really like Fred Thomas,” Howland said of MSU’s 6-6 small forward who started 16 of 31 games as a junior. “He stands out with his potential. He can really shoot the ball, and I think we can get him even better with some adjustments.”
Thomas, from Jackson, averaged 9.1 ppg. last season. He led MSU with 47 3-pointers.
Howland also liked what he saw from rising seniors Travis Daniels and Craig Sword. Of Sword, Howland said, “He hasn’t really been able to do much with us because he’s still recovering from his back injury, but he was our leading scorer last season and he’s an All-SEC talent. Looking at him on film, his toughness jumps out at you.”
But Howland saved his most effusive praise for 6-8 post player Gavin Ware, a former standout at Starkville High. Ware averaged 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds per game as a junior. But while Ware led MSU in double-doubles with 14, Howland feels he was under-utilized.
“Gavin only got seven shots a game last year,” Howland said. “I promise he’s going to get more than seven shots per game this year. Because when he gets fouled, he makes his foul shots, so he has a lot of potential to really be a force inside. The strength of our team is in our senior class.”
While MSU’s seniors, a group that also includes forward Johnny Zuppardo, received most of Howland’s attention, he also doled out praise for freshman Demetrius Houston. At 6-7, Houston brings athleticism to the floor. He averaged 3.1 ppg. in limited action.
“Houston’s got a lot of potential,” Howland said. “He’s got to become a better shooter. We really have to break down his jump shot and work on that. He could be a great defender with his size and athletic ability.”
While Howland sees plenty of talent in a team that went 13-19 last season, he also sees plenty of room for improvement, starting with conditioning.
“We need to make some body fat changes,” Howland said. “We need to get stronger, too. We’ve got to get in the weight room and get stronger. We’ve got some guys that need to make sure they’re taking care of their body more. Other than that, we’ve got some mechanical stuff to fix, but I’ve been very pleased so far.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @ctsportseditor