National title on minds of the Bulldogs

Mississippi State's Quinndary Weatherspoon (11)

Staff Writer

The words rolled out of Quinndary Weatherspoon’s mouth with confidence.

Just days after Mississippi State began its practices for the 2018-19 basketball season, Weatherspoon, MSU’s senior guard, fielded questions about his team’s goals. What he said included a phrase that, in recent years, might have been laughed at in regards to the State men’s hoops program.

“We’re trying to win the national championship,” Weatherspoon said.

It’s no shock at all that a player in any sport would be striving for a title. It is a bit jarring that this team, these Bulldogs, are now in a place where the words “national championship” can be uttered without anyone immediately rolling their eyes.

Yes, a national championship is probably a long shot for Mississippi State. Yet this year’s Bulldogs at least seemingly have a chance. CBS Sports ranks MSU as the nation’s No. 15 team on its preseason college basketball poll. Sporting News places the Bulldogs at No. 18.

This comes after nearly a decade of Mississippi State missing out on the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs haven’t been in the big dance since 2009. So how will MSU handle the role of preseason favorite?

“It’s a great question because we haven’t had that – not to this level where people have us in the national rankings,” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “Bottom line is that it’s really nice and it brings a lot of excitement for our fans and it’s exciting for our players, but you still have to go out and earn it. You have to prove yourself every day. Those rankings mean nothing once the ball is tipped. All it does is put a bigger bullseye on your chest for other people.”

Like Weatherspoon illustrated with his words, the Bulldogs aren’t backing down from the high expectations. They have every reason to expect to live up to them.

After all, MSU nearly made the NCAA Tournament last season. The Bulldogs ultimately had to settle for a berth in the National Invitational Tournament, but once there, State was one of the last four teams standing in that event. MSU players say just missing out on the big dance and then coming close to an NIT title sparks them for the coming campaign.

“It’s a great motivational tool because we were right there,” senior forward Aric Holman said.

Holman and Weatherspoon stand to be the two guys who might treasure a trip to the NCAA Tournament the most. For the last three seasons, that duo has been the foundation for Howland to return State to its glory of past seasons when NCAA Tournament appearances were much more common. Now, Holman and Weatherspoon will get one final chance to go dancing.

Holman says he and Weatherspoon “absolutely” feel a sense of urgency to get to the tournament and yes, the ultimate goal for them is to perhaps do something as amazing as win the whole thing.

“Coming out of high school, we came from winning programs,” Holman said of himself and Weatherspoon. “So we already had our heads up high when we first got here. When we first got here, we told ourselves that we wanted to get this program back on top. That’s why we’ve sacrificed and stayed all four years. We love our teammates and we just want to go out with a bang and a national championship is our only mindset right now.”

Holman and Weatherspoon will have plenty of help as they seek to go out on top. It’s another reason the Bulldogs are thought so highly of. Counting Holman and Weatherspoon, MSU’s top six scorers from last season all return.

Add freshman standouts such as four-star forward Reggie Perry and four-star guards Robert Woodard and D.J. Stewart and you have the makings of a deeper, more talented team than State put on the court last season.

Considering it all, it’d be foolish to completely dismiss the lofty goals stated by both Weatherspoon and Holman. For Mississippi State men’s basketball, dreaming about championships seems to be possible again. The Bulldogs intend to do all they can to not just restore the program’s former glory, but try and go where no MSU men’s team has ever gone before.

“That’s all we’ve been talking about this year,” Weatherspoon said. “That’s all the motivation we need to try and get in the gym and get better.”