Mississippi State’s Ben Howland joined the rest of the league’s coaches on the SEC men’s basketball teleconference on Monday to discuss the Bulldogs recent performances and preview its match-ups this week.
Here is a transcript of Howland’s time on the call…
“We’re glad to finally get a win under our belt in the conference. It was an important win because it’s obviously our in-state rival, Ole Miss. They’re a good team and very well coached. They were short-handed without their two best players.
“This week coming up we’ve got obviously great team in South Carolina, who is having an outstanding year. They’re an NCAA Tournament team and a nationally ranked team. We’ll have our hands full and then we’re at Missouri after that on Saturday.”
What does your game against Texas A&M say about them and what did you like about their team?
Howland: “No. 1 is they really have great senior leadership. (Alex) Caruso is the heart and soul of that team. He is a really good player. He’s a four-year guy and has been there. He makes all the plays for that team when they need them and did so against us. He was the guy that was the difference maker.
“(Danuel House) did not play in the game against us, which was a factor because he’s one of their best players and a good senior. I think (Jalen) Jones really has an unbelievable motor and a great competitor. Then (Anthony) Collins, the point guard, is a transfer from South Florida and has made a huge difference. He really embraces his role and does a good job distributing the ball. He is a leader.
“They have two of the top 10 leaders in career assists, which is incredible. Then their freshman class is one of the top five freshman classes in the country. I think (Tyler) Davis is as good as any freshman big sealing inside. (Tonny Trocha-Morelos) inside as a sophomore would start for about every team in our league.
“They’ve got great depth and a great blend of youth and senior leadership and are very, very well coached. That’s why they are the best team in our league as of right now.”
After playing Florida, what’s your take on KeVaughn Allen?
Howland: “I just think he’s a really fine athlete who has become a better shooter with his hard work. He’s a competitor and tough. He made big shots against us, I know that.”
How well did Malik Newman play in your last game?
Howland: “I thought it was Malik’s best game of the year. He played with a lot of swag and confidence. He let the game come to him. He didn’t force the issue or force things offensively. He’s getting better and better defensively, which is exciting.
“I thought he made some really good plays distributing the ball, making the extra pass to his teammates. He had a very good all-around game.”
How did Newman handle the typical struggles that freshmen do?
Howland: “He’s handled it well. It’s tough. There’s so much expectation on a kid like Malik that’s one of the top players coming out of high school the previous year. He’s had a couple of tough breaks with turf toe and being out three weeks before he went into the season which hurt at the beginning of the year.
“He was playing catch-up for the first month. But I think he’s really settling in now and is doing a good job for us.”
How has Gavin Ware progressed?
Howland: “I think he’s done a great job. He’s had double figures in every game but one. He’s embraced the idea of getting more post touches and is scoring inside close to the basket. He’s shooting an incredible percentage from the field.
“He’s in the best shape of his life and we’re trying to play him as many minutes as possible. The biggest key for us is for him to play and not get into foul trouble, which he’s had a tendency to do in six or seven games.
“That really hurt us at Florida. He only played 15 minutes. Hopefully we can continue to keep him on the floor and good things are going to happen for our team.”
Is it better to inherit a team full of seniors or is it better to start from scratch with freshmen?
Howland: “We’ll have that next year. My thing is I just wanted to do the very best job I can here to help these seniors feel good about their last year. That was my mantra going into the season.
“I’m starting two freshmen in Malik Newman and Quinndary Weatherspoon. They are both very good freshmen and we’re trying to get Aric Holman more minutes, who is another freshman.
“But obviously, the heart and soul of the team starts with our seniors. It starts expecially with the fourth-year seniors that have been at Mississippi State – Craig “Chicken” Sword, Gavin Ware and Fred Thomas.”
What’s been different about Quinndary Weatherspoon as a starter?
Howland: “He started a few games earlier in the season a little bit. But it’s just experience. I’m so excited about his growth from where he was in June to where he is right now.
“It all starts with his practice habits. He brings it every day. He plays so hard and has toughness. Right now we’re asking him to do things that would be hard for most freshmen to handle. I’m asking him to play power forward in our offense and defense at 6-foot-4. He’s really a two-guard.
“But his toughness and competitiveness and willingness to help the team any way he can has been real impressive to me. He think he’s going to continue to get better and better because he’s a competitor, cares and wants it so bad. He’s a team guy.
“He fills up the stats sheet every night in rebounds, steals, deflections and obviously scoring points and getting to the line.”
Have you seen Weatherspoon be more aggressive in the last few games?
Howland: “He’s been aggressive for a long time because for a while he was on the second team at practice. Our second team – because we’re so shorthanded – doesn’t really measure up. We’ve had 10 scholarship players in practice just a handful of days this entire year and don’t have it anymore nor will we the rest of the year.
“That makes it tough on that second group. So he was the one guy that was really, really aggressive every day. He had some incredible days running that group. I think that’s carried over to now that he’s playing with the first team.”
Is the group a little more confident in the last day or two?
Howland: “There’s no question because we got that monkey off our back. We had five previous games and were in all five. Four of them we had a chance to win in the last two minutes. That’s tough.
“It’s a positive that no one has blown us out with the exception of losing by 14 at Arkansas where we were down three with less than six to go. But to finally get over the hump is important.
“Of course it helps you feel better, especially to beat your arch rival. We had a great atmosphere at the Hump Saturday afternoon. One thing I learned the very first day on the job last March was that the most important game is Ole Miss for our fans and alums.”
How do you feel about not being part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge?
Howland: “It’s fine. I did that a number of years at UCLA when we played a non-conference game in the middle of the season and I never liked that concept. Unless you’re Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV and your league is inferior and you do that to play up or even a Gonzaga in their league.
“But if you’re one of the power five conferences, it takes away from the focus of the conference race – at least in my mind. I think it’s great for the notoriety of the conferences and all that but I just think it’s tough so I have no problem with it.”