Ben Howland knows the Mississippi State men’s basketball team hasn’t been the NCAA tournament-caliber program he expected.
The Bulldogs are off to a respectable 6-3 start, but they’ve missed out on several chances for a résumé-building win. MSU lost to Louisville in the Bahamas, fell behind early in a Dec. 5 loss to Minnesota and blew a late lead Saturday against Colorado State.
But Howland still thinks Mississippi State is close to where it needs to be.
“We’re not far away,” Howland said Monday. “We just have to keep grinding away and hope we get healthy here so we can be at full strength.”
The loss of forward Tolu Smith for at least two weeks with another foot injury stings, as does a hip injury that plagued forward Cameron Matthews during Saturday’s loss and is still bothering the sophomore. Guard Rocket Watts, who returned in November from a torn hip labrum, isn’t 100 percent, either.
“His hip’s not where it needs to be for him to be at his very best,” Howland said.
But the Bulldogs coach has said repeatedly this season’s roster is as deep as any he’s coached at Mississippi State, and MSU has to be able to weather a few hits. Against the Cardinals, Golden Gophers and Rams, the Bulldogs simply haven’t.
They can’t afford another misstep at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Humphrey Coliseum against Georgia State (5-3), which has just three wins against Division I teams but is one of the best teams in its conference. The Panthers won the Sun Belt regular-season title last season and were projected to win it again in 2022.
“That’s why we’re playing them,” Howland said. “They’re picked to win their league. They won it last year. They’re going to be in the NCAA tournament. We’ve got to take that opportunity.”
Georgia State owns wins over Northeastern, William & Mary and High Point in addition to victories over NAIA schools Brewton-Parker and Voorhees. The Panthers are an experienced team coached by former Tennessee assistant Rob Lanier.
Three guards — Justin Roberts, Corey Allen and Kane Williams — each average more than 15 points per game for Georgia State. The Panthers are the eighth-best 3-point shooting team in the country at 41 percent.
“They’re a team that’s coming in trying to beat the high-major team on the road, and they’re very, very talented,” Howland said. “Scary group.”
The Panthers haven’t always looked that terrifying this season, losing back-to-back games to Rhode Island and Mercer. Georgia State’s other loss was to Richmond, which Mississippi State beat 82-71 in overtime on Nov. 27.
The Panthers allow the fourth-highest 3-point shooting percentage in the country, an area where Mississippi State can take advantage. But the Bulldogs have struggled from deep, making just 7 of 28 attempts against Colorado State and 9 of 29 against Minnesota. Their once-strong 3-point shooting has fallen under 35 percent and ranks No. 114 in the nation.
Much of that is because of poor shooting by star point guard Iverson Molinar, who went 3 of 18 from 3 over the past two games. Molinar is shooting just 26.5 percent from 3 this season despite making 94 percent of his free throws.
Howland said Molinar has been taking good shots but simply missing them. The coach said the junior guard is too good not to bounce back from the poor stretch.
“I’m confident he’s going to be fine because he puts the work in,” Howland said. “He puts the time in. He’s just got to relax and not press.”
The same goes for the rest of the Bulldogs as they hope to snap the two-game skid. Howland pointed out Mississippi State certainly had its chances: MSU tied the game in the final minute against Minnesota after being down 14-0; the Bulldogs led the unbeaten Rams by eight points with six minutes to go before coughing up the lead.
Those losses, as of December, likely would keep Mississippi State out of the NCAA tournament.
But there’s plenty of basketball left to be played.
“As of right now, we wouldn’t be (in the tournament), but the good news for us is we’ve got 10 or 11 games in our conference coming up where they’re all Quad 1 games against really good teams,” Howland said. “I explain it to our team: ‘We’re right there.’”
And getting over the hump — at The Hump — starts Tuesday night.
“We have the opportunities coming up,” Howland said. “We just need to make sure we take care of business tomorrow against Georgia State, because we cannot afford to lose that game.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.