STARKVILLE — A comedic smile cracks over Ben Howland’s face as he discusses a simple reality of next year’s roster: it will contain multiple seniors.
This shouldn’t be such a novelty for a men’s basketball team, but it is just that for Howland’s Mississippi State program given recent years. After two years of having the nation’s least experienced roster and among the bottom 30 in experience the year after, he has experienced players that recently proved their ability to win.
Therein lies only one reason for Howland’s enthusiastic optimism for the 2018-19 team going into the offseason, which he detailed in an exclusive conversation with The Dispatch before his Thursday press conference. After a 25-12, 9-9 Southeastern Conference season capped with a run to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), and doing so with a roster lacking a scholarship senior, the expectation of an NCAA tournament bid in 2018-19 is looming; Howland is doing nothing to discourage it.
“We’re expecting to have a really good year this year,” Howland told The Dispatch. “Once again, you have to qualify that with hoping everyone stays healthy, that doesn’t change.
“(The NCAA Tournament has) always been our goal, bottom line.”
Next year’s team has already received a boost in the return of freshman guard Nick Weatherspoon. After averaging 10.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game in 36 starts, he announced his intent to test the NBA Draft waters without an agent, but mere days later announced his intent to return to MSU.
“I think he will be in the draft at some point in the future, but for the team next year, I think it’s great,” Howland said. “I think he’s going to grow a lot this year, and the biggest thing he has to do in the offseason is to improve his outside jump shot. He shot 29 percent from 3 last season; I expect that’s going to be up in the 40s as we stand here a year from now talking about his shooting percentages.
“His work ethic, coachability, desirability to do what he has to do, all phenomenal.”
Howland also pointed to outside shooting as a goal for the rest of the team after MSU finished last in the SEC and among the bottom 25 in the nation with a 31.5 3-point shooting percentage. MSU’s 3-point woes were most evident in that its leader was a forward, Aric Holman, who shot 44 percent; of the four guards that averaged at least 20 minutes per game, none of them shot better than 35 percent.
Howland is also excited for year two under strength and conditioning coach Collin Crane, expecting the team to get, “bigger, faster, stronger, quicker.”
Crane’s program is part of a summer that Howland expects to set the table for the 2018-19 season. He is of the belief that players make their most drastic improvement in the summer between their freshmen and sophomore seasons — great news for Weatherspoon, Abdul Ado, KeyShawn Feazell and Tate Clayton — but Howland still sees growth potential in others.
Riding the wave of the season’s end, as road wins over Baylor and Louisville sent MSU to Madison Square Garden, is a certain
“Look at Aric Holman, I think Aric grew incredibly from his sophomore to his junior campaign,” Howland told The Dispatch. Holman grew to be MSU’s leading rebounder, second-best shot blocker and second-leading scorer last season. “What I’ve stated in the past is on average, the year between the freshman and sophomore season in the most growth, but there’s always growth and improvement in players in the summer. That’s when you make some of your biggest jumps.
“I thought the momentum was incredibly positive for our team. I thought that really helped our growth. Two road wins against high-major opponents that are good teams on the road at the end of the season, that was really good for us.”
Those two wins were novelties because they were the nearly the first of their kind, largely due to a lack of opportunity. The entire regular season saw MSU win twice in true road games, at South Carolina and at Texas A&M, while it loaded its non-conference schedule with mostly home games. That lack of road opportunities was a hurdle for MSU to overcome in its last-season surge that could have put it on the bubble for a NCAA tournament at-large bid; this year, Howland said to expect more games against Power 5 conference teams and more games away from home.
“That’s going to be an incredibly upgraded non-conference schedule. We’re in the midst of that right now,” Howland said. “Our fans, I think, will be thrilled.”
That non-conference schedule, played by a group of players a year older and a year better, brings together all the elements of a season Howland expects to be quite the draw. Waiting for it to come might be the hardest part.
“I am incredibly enthused about the upcoming season. Really excited. Thrilled,” Howland said. “I wish we could start it now. It’s going to be a long offseason because I really can’t wait.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson