Howland, Bulldogs know importance of upcoming games

Mississippi State men's basketball coach Ben Howland visits with his team.

Staff Writer

Fans of Mississippi State women’s basketball know it’s coming. Every game, at some point, Bulldogs head coach Vic Schaefer is going to get so into the game that he’s taking off his jacket.

MSU men’s head coach Ben Howland is hopeful that his bunch of Bulldogs can soon mimic the national success the women’s team has had of late. On the pathway to doing that, Howland has recently appeared to take a page out of Schaefer’s book by removing his own jacket in the midst of games. He did so again on Tuesday as the Bulldogs battled back from a three-point halftime deficit to defeat McNeese State 90-77.

Why is Howland suddenly pulling a Schaefer? It’s because he knows his 22nd-ranked Bulldogs need every win they can get if they are to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade.

“It’s knowing how every game is so important to this team,” Howland said after Tuesday’s game about taking off his coat. “It’s happened the last three games I think. And now I’m not quite so overweight, so I don’t look quite as bad with my jacket off.”

Howland could stand to crack a joke on Tuesday. MSU pulled out the victory to move to 7-1 this season. The Bulldogs are on a path, if they can keep winning, to indeed snap their long NCAA Tournament drought.
MSU built some momentum last season when it advanced all the way to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament. Now though, the Bulldogs are hungry for more.

Mississippi State has shown signs it’s ready to take the next step. The Bulldogs’ lone loss of the season was against a tough Arizona State squad in which MSU battled back from a 15-point halftime deficit only to be defeated. Mississippi State picked up an impressive road win last Friday at Dayton in front of a sold-out crowd.

“The last game at Dayton was a great win,” Howland said. “It was really a gut-check win in a phenomenal environment with an incredible crowd.”

On Tuesday, the opponent wasn’t much-heralded. McNeese State came to Starkville sporting only a 2-5 record. However the Cowboys came out playing a near-perfect game and gave the Bulldogs quite a scare. MSU trailed 42-39 at the intermission. Yet as good teams do, the Bulldogs rallied in the second half and pulled away. It was an important lesson for Howland’s team as he tries to guide them to the Big Dance.

“I keep trying to emphasize to our players that anybody can beat you on a given day,” Howland said. “Anybody can beat us on a given day and we can beat anybody on a given day. It’s all about how we approach it.”

Tuesday night won’t be the last time the Bulldogs’ mettle is tested. It could very well happen again on Saturday as MSU’s schedule starts to toughen beginning with a game in New Jersey against Clemson. Clemson is 6-2 this season.

Mississippi State follows up that game with a home tilt against Cincinnati on December 15. Cincinnati is currently 8-1.

Not long after, Southeastern Conference play tips off for MSU, so the path to the NCAA Tournament is one littered with challenges. That means Howland’s suit jackets might need to get used to being ripped off.

The biggest obstacle of all for Mississippi State though, at least according to Howland, is itself. Sure, the opponents ahead are daunting, but Howland thinks if MSU can handle its own business, the Bulldogs will be just fine.

“We control ourselves,” Howland said. “Now, we’ve got 23 games before we get to the conference tournament and every one is going to be incredibly difficult. It’s going to be tough and we’ve got to be mentally strong to deal with it.”