RICK CLEVELAND: State boasts wealth of college basketball talent

RICK CLEVELAND

RICK CLEVELAND

JACKSON

The Super Bowl is in the books. National Signing Day has signed off, thank-you. The Winter Olympics are at full throttle. So you know what’s next as we flip the pages of our sports calendar?

That’s right: March Madness.

In Mississippi, March Madness traditionally begins with the presentation of the C Spire Howell and Gillom trophies, which go to the most outstanding men’s and women’s players, respectively, among the Magnolia State’s four-year colleges.

This year’s C Spire Howell and Gillom awards luncheon will be held March 3 at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson.

Last year, the Madness began with Marshall Henderson winning the Howell and then propelling the Ole Miss Rebels to the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship and into the NCAA Tournament.

Henderson is among the candidates for this year’s Howell Trophy. All three finalists for the Gillom Trophy from last year – winner Martha Alwal of Mississippi State, Jamierra Faulkner of Southern Miss and Valencia McFarland of Ole Miss, are among several outstanding 2014 candidates.

The 2013-14 hoops season has been especially productive for Mississippi basketball fans. To wit:

• On the men’s side, Southern Miss, led by point guard Neil Watson, is off to a 21-3 start and as of Monday was tied for the Conference USA lead with an 8-1 mark. Ole Miss, 16-7, is solidly in third place in the SEC, behind only Florida and Kentucky. Mississippi State has achieved 13 victories, three more than all of last year. Delta State, 18-3, ranked No. 14 nationally in NCAA Division II going into this past weekend. William Carey, 17-2, ranks fifth nationally in NAIA.

• Among the women’s teams, traditional Division II power Delta State entered the week at 17-3 and ranked No. 12 nationally. Southern Miss, led by Faulkner, entered the week with a four-game win streak and a 17-5 record. Mississippi State, led by Alwal’s scoring and rebounding, had won 16 and lost nine beginning the week.

The Howell Trophy voting should be especially close.

Henderson ranks third in the SEC in scoring at 19.1 points a game, but teammate Jarvis Summers is just behind at 17.2 and shoots above 50 percent on field goals and 3-pointers, significantly higher than Henderson.

Southern Miss might be the nation’s most balanced team, scoring-wise, but Watson, who suffered an ankle sprain on Sunday, is the guy who makes it all work. He not only is the chief distributor with 90-plus assists, but leads the team in scoring at 12 points a game and ranks second in the nation in free throw shooting at 94 percent, including a recent streak of 51 straight made free throws.

Craig Sword leads much-improved State with 13.2 points per game and also leads the teams in assists and steals. Jackson State’s Brandon West averages a double-double with 12.9 points and a SWAC-leading 10.3 rebounds per game. Willie Readus, a transfer from Jackson State, leads Delta State in both scoring (20.2) and rebounding (11.1). Daron Bell leads high-flying William Carey with 18 points and six rebounds per game.

On the women’s side, Alwal ranks in the SEC top 10 in rebounding, scoring, blocked shots and field goal percentage. McFarland of Ole Miss ranks in the top 10 in scoring, assists, steals, minutes played and assist/turnover ratio.

USM’s Faulkner leads her team in points (16) and assists (8.6). She leads Conference USA in both assists and steals.

Seneca Walton averages a double-double for Delta State with 15.1 points and 10.3 rebounds and also leads the team in blocked shots. Alcorn State’s Tierro Frost ranks fifth in the SWAC in scoring at 17.7 points per game.

Obviously, voters have plenty of choices.

Note: For tickets or sponsorship tables to the March 3 C Spire Howell and Gillom presentation, call 601-982-8264.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.