Sophomore center E.J. Datcher had 11 points and four rebounds Friday in the Mississippi State men’s basketball team’s 96-68 victory against Alabama State. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
November 16, 2017 10:18:46 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State forward E.J. Datcher came to Southeastern Conference basketball from Harpersville, Alabama, a town with about as many people as Starkville High School has students. Naturally, the adjustment is not easy.
By the looks of it, he gathered all the lessons needed in one season.
Based on MSU's two preseason exhibitions and the season-opening win over Alabama State, Datcher looks poised for a significant improvement in year two -- not that it would come as a surprise to MSU head coach Ben Howland. Datcher's next opportunity to showcase it comes at 3 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network+) as MSU (1-0) hosts Florida A&M (0-2) at Humphrey Coliseum.
"You have to remember, he was really green when he got here," Howland said. "He was in the smallest, 1A, whatever it is in Alabama, to go from there to the SEC was a big jump for him. I was really excited about his activity (in the preseason) and his ability to shoot the ball."
Datcher's high school, Vincent High School, was actually a 2A school, but even Datcher agrees there is some truth to Howland's point. Datcher was quick to point out his school played against some of the primetime talents the state had to offer -- Auburn's Austin Wiley, for instance -- but said the physicality of the game in the SEC was something to adjust to.
"It was a big transition because I didn't play those guys constantly," Datcher said. "As the season went on it, I got better with that."
That adjustment was made more difficult by a shoulder injury -- and the same can be said for the offseason that followed.
Datcher played in all but one of MSU's conference games last year and both SEC Tournament games despite a shoulder injury that required surgery in the offseason. He was a little-used rotation player, averaging 6.7 minutes per game; Datcher said after the fact said the pain was manageable, but did get worse later in the season.
The aftermath of the surgery complicated his offseason goals: everyone on the team wanted to improve their shooting, but Datcher's conversations with Howland an new strength and conditioning coach Collin Crane established a separate goal of cutting body fat while adding muscle.
Being immobilized to the degree that shoulder surgery does made that difficult: Crane said at one point this summer Datcher got up to 266 pounds, the heaviest he's ever been. (He currently plays at 240.) It also revealed Datcher's character to Crane.
Crane was often in 1-on-1 training with Datcher while he was rehabilitating his shoulder, and then again as Datcher tried to cut the weight back to where the program wants him. Crane came to be impressed by Datcher the person before he ever saw Datcher the basketball player.
"It's not easy to come in every day when you're not 100 percent cleared to play. These guys came here to be basketball players, not weight lifters," Crane said. "For E.J. to come in every day and know he wasn't going to touch a basketball, but he had to see me every day -- and at times there's some screaming, some yelling, some aggressive motivation from my end -- and it seems like there's no end in sight, he was able to motivate himself on a consistent basis, which is huge for a young kid."
Datcher reached that point with help
"I talked to my parents about it and they told me if this wasn't for me, why am I here?" Datcher said. "I talked to Coach Howland about it and he told me the more work I put in, the better I'd be. That really helped me a lot."
Since then, Datcher has gotten his weight down to what Crane and Howland want it to be, even if all parties hope to add a little more muscle. Howland identified Datcher as playing some of the best minutes on the team in its opening exhibition against Nebraska. While Abdul Ado has been out with a quadriceps injury, Datcher has proved to be a valuable piece of the MSU frontcourt.
He credits that to confidence. He's been through a season, he's been through a shoulder rehabilitation and has come out of it better.
"I think I'm pretty prepared for it now," Datcher said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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