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‘ offseason.
Here is a transcript of Howland’s time on the call…
“We’re a very, very young team coming up this year. We graduated five seniors and we’ve got a huge changeover. We’re going to a team that has a lot of inexperience. I’m really excited about these young freshmen though with their enthusiasm and how hard they’re working since they’ve arrived. This is our fourth full week of school and beginning our last week of summer session No. 1. We’re going into a long weekend with July 4th.
“But we’re excited. We’re really looking forward to our opportunity to practice and prepare for a trip to Italy that we’ll take August 2-14. I think that’ll be really good with having such a young team to get to know one another and get a head start on what we’re trying to do with our schemes offensively and defensively and work on fundamentals. It’ll also be a great bonding experience to be able to go over to Europe and play some teams over there. It’ll be a great experience of being somewhere we’ve never been before and get a great history lesson in Italy.”
If you were SEC basketball czar for a day, what would be the one thing that would need to happen to elevate the SEC’s profile nationally?
Howland: “I think commissioner (Greg) Sankey is doing a great job and made some terrific hires starting with Mike Tranghese. I was at the University of Pittsburgh for four years and commissioner Tranghese at the time in the Big East was phenomenal and is a foremost expert on college basketball if you look at his experience and what all he brings. That’s a great hire.
“Dan Leibovitz, to have a guy with his background as both an administrator in the American (Athletic) Conference and most recently as a coach – having worked for John Chaney and been a head coach – he has a great wealth of experience.
“Those two guys are really adding a lot in terms of where we’re headed and what are goals are and how to get there. Mark Whitehead will do a great job for us in terms of the officiating. So there’s already a lot of positive things that are happening in a short period of time.
“When you look at this conference, there’s a lot of really good coaches. There’s obviously a great love for each of the institutions by their fans. The SEC Network is an absolute grand slam in terms of the amount of exposure this conference gets. I think a lot of things are happening in a positive way.
“We had a very good recruiting year. I love our freshmen class. We need to have another good class to really build the foundation this coming year. I’m going to try to sign three more players. But it really comes down to the athletes you’re able to attract. There’s a lot of reasons why this conference is going to continue to be able to attract good players. Not just Kentucky, but everyone else.
“Kentucky is at a level by itself in terms of what coach (John) Calipari has done with their program and their recruiting. I think our league is really heading in the right direction.”
What was your perception of SEC basketball when you were coaching at other places?
Howland: “Great players. I go back to being an assistant coach at UC-Santa Barbara and we played in the NCAA’s back in about 1990 in Knoxville and watching LSU with Stanley Turner, Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Jackson.
“But go back and think about all the great players throughout the SEC. We were very fortunate back in 2006 to beat Alabama back in the second round of the tournament. Mark Gotfried had a great team and had a kid (Richard) Hendrix inside and a really good guard (Ronald Steele). We were fortunate. It came down to the last minute and we went to the national championship game that year. We also played LSU that year in the Final Four.
“This league has always been strong in basketball. I have no doubts that it will be strong again like it’s been in the past. Talk about the level of players – not just at Kentucky – but around the league like at Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Vanderbilt. The success Kevin Stallings had during 17 years at Vanderbilt is very, very special. As a coach from another league, I’ve always had great respect for the SEC in basketball.”
Why do you think the SEC has only had a few teams in the NCAA Tournament lately?
Howland: “I think this is a blip. I think it’s going to head back up. From commissioner Sankey on down, there’s a great emphasis to each of the different universities in this conference to really put an emphasis on being successful in men’s basketball.
“There’s no reason with all the talent that’s in the Southeast that we can’t get back to where this conference once was. It’s like going back to one of my last years at UCLA, the Pac-12 had two teams in the tournament at one point. This year they had eight. So it will come back up.
“I think the biggest thing is they’ve hired Rick Barnes, Bruce Pearl, Avery Johnson, (Michael) White and some of the newer coaches – there’s been some great new hires in this conference. Then you still have the premier program in all of college basketball in the University of Kentucky.
Kentucky, Kansas and Duke are really the only teams that can claim that mantel. Really it’s been Kentucky since John’s arrival and what they’re doing. I think our league is strong and I think it’s going to get a lot better over the course of these next few years.”
How do you plan to use the open scholarship with Malik Newman transferring?
Howland: “I’m not sure yet. It’s late and there’s not a lot of players floating around. If there is someone we felt we could get involved with that would be good for our program, otherwise we’ll just play with 12 (scholarship) guys this year and save that one for the following year. So it’s really up in the air.”
How many freshmen have arrived already?
Howland: “The only freshman that’s not on campus that signed with us is Abdul Ado. He’s had an issue with his transcripts in terms from Nigeria. He’s played at a prep school in Tennessee the last two years but we plan on and hope he’ll be here the second session of the summer which starts July 5.”
What are the benefits of playing in Italy and those extra practices you get?
Howland: “With such a young team, I think the practices are really important. It gives the players a chance to really get a feel for what we’re trying to accomplish at both ends of the floor. It’s fun for them.
“Right now we get to work with our players for eight hours per week, only two of those hours can be in the gym. So our players are here all summer taking a class or two and getting acclimated and a head start in college but we can only be with them two hours per week.
“They’ve proposed to up those hours to four or five on the court which I think would be much better. Our players are dying to get in here and work with the coaches. They’re in there on their own at all hours. They’re in there at 6:30 in the morning until late at night. I’d really like to see the NCAA let us spend more time on the court with our players during the eight weeks of the summer. They want it. They want to get coached and get better and improve.
“We get 10 days of practice in preparation for that European trip so we’ll really utilize those hours to spend time with them working on their shooting and ball handling so that when we’re not with them they can work out on their own as well as doing 5-on-5 stuff and putting in some of our fast break, defense and some of the schemes we will use. Hopefully that will carry over into the regular season.”
How important will it be to play games and spend time together in Italy?
Howland: “Playing the games will be fun. We won’t practice at all when we leave. It’ll be four games in 10 days on the ground over there. It’ll be a day of travel going over and a day coming back.
“But it’ll be great. We’re going to be in Rome, Florence, Lake Como and Milan. I personally have never been to Europe so I am bringing my family. I’m really excited and I know they are.
“Our players are excited. We’re going to be going to the Colosseum, the Vatican and history right there before our eyes. Things that are thousands of years old. We’ll be in places that were around during Christ‘s time that are still there. So it’s going to be a fun, cultural experience and bonding for our players to be together and share a fun experience for our team moving forward.”