STARKVILLE, Mississippi — Mississippi State hopes first-year coach Ben Howland can turn the program around in a hurry.
A veteran roster — combined with the arrival of prized recruit Malik Newman — makes that a legitimate possibility.
The 58-year-old Howland is back coaching after a two-year absence. He's best known for his 10-year tenure at UCLA, where he led the Bruins to seven NCAA tournament appearances and three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008. He was fired following the 2013 season.
Mississippi State, by contrast, has been to just one Final Four in its history, back in 1996. The Bulldogs are coming off a difficult three-year stretch under former coach Rick Ray that included a 37-60 record.
None of that deterred Howland.
"There's such a passion and interest in Mississippi State basketball," Howland said. "There's no pro sports around here so I think that amplifies the interest and you can really feel it."
Howland inherits a veteran nucleus that includes seniors Craig Sword, Fred Thomas and Gavin Ware. Sword led the team with 11.3 points per game last season while Ware averaged 10 points and a team-high 7.1 rebounds.
Those veterans will pair with the 6-foot-3 Newman, who was a McDonald's All-American and one of the top-rated recruits in the country. The Jackson, Mississippi, native signed with the Bulldogs shortly after Howland was named the new coach.
Newman should give the Bulldogs some sorely-needed outside shooting and star power. Howland hasn't hesitated to say the Newman will be a focal point of the offense immediately.
"I think this year we have a chance to be competitive because of our five seniors and Malik," Howland said.
Here are some things to watch in Ben Howland's first year at Mississippi State:
SWORD THE SENIOR: There is understandably a lot of excitement surrounding prized recruit Malik Newman, but senior Craig Sword might be just as important to the program's immediate success. The 6-foot-3 Sword had a slow start last season while dealing with a back injury, but was easily the team's best player during conference play, averaging 14.4 points per game. His ability to get to the basket and draw fouls should be a good fit with Newman, who is a better outside shooter.
READY TO LEAD: New coach Ben Howland has said he's impressed with junior point guard I.J. Ready. The 5-11 junior improved as the season progressed last year, averaging 8.2 points per game and leading the team with 71 assists and 37 steals. The Bulldogs would like to see him improve his shooting percentages — he shot 39.9 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from 3-point range.
IMPROVING THE OFFENSE: Mississippi State's three-year stretch under coach Rick Ray was painful to watch for several reasons, but the biggest was this: The Bulldogs almost always struggled to score. Mississippi State scored just 61.8 points per game last season, which ranked 13th out of 14 league teams. A big reason for the mediocre offense was shaky outside shooting — the Bulldogs made just 4.2 3-pointers per game last season, which was last in the league.
THE OTHER FRESHMAN: Freshman guard Quinndary Weatherspoon is getting a little lost in the Newman hype, but might be more important to Mississippi State's long-term future. While Howland has acknowledged that Newman is probably a one-and-done player before heading to the NBA, Weatherspoon will almost certainly be around longer. The 6-foot-4 guard is expected to earn significant playing time immediately and provides plenty of scoring ability.
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