November 20, 2017 10:16:26 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State guard Lamar Peters picked the pocket of a Florida A&M guard and sent the ball forward to Tyson Carter for an easy dunk. The play put the Bulldogs up 15-2 just over five minutes into the first half.
Then MSU stayed there at 15 points -- for 4 minutes and 40 seconds. MSU coach Ben Howland said after the fact that stretch, "felt like forever." He'll address the nine consecutive missed shots in that span later; for now, he sees a positive lesson to take from it.
"Your defense keeps you ahead," Howland said. "That was eight minutes and we still had the lead because we were playing pretty good defense."
Based on what MSU (2-0) did in its 79-48 win over Florida A&M (0-4) Saturday night, who it did it with, who it did it without and how it did it, defense of that caliber could be the expectation for MSU going forward.
The biggest piece of that puzzle is the both the literal biggest, at 7 feet tall, and the newest: freshman forward Abdul Ado made his MSU debut Saturday and did not disappoint defensively.
"I really like how he impacts us on defense: teams won't get many second chances on us, he rebounds the ball, he blocks shots and he hedges on ball screens," Peters said.
That last part is what may unlock the secret to improved defense for MSU.
Howland has long held an aggressive mentality when it comes to defending ball screens. Howland sees a lot of what he calls "plugging" in the modern-day NBA, in which the forward or center involved stands alongside the on-ball defender on the other side of the screen, providing little pressure on the ball but enough of a presence to make an immediate jump shot difficult in theory.
Howland prefers to hedge screens, meaning the big man steps well out into the perimeter directly into the path of the ball handler. It's demanding on forwards and centers, calling on them to corral quicker guards and then quickly return to the post to restore the defense, but it also puts much more pressure on ball handlers.
Players like Ado and an improving E.J. Datcher make it possible.
"I thought our defense in the first half was tremendous," Howland said. "We're so much more aggressive with our ball screens. I think that's really helped our defense."
The first time out with it was promising, holding Florida A&M to 28.1 percent shooting and even worse from 3-point range (26.3 percent). Florida A&M did rebound 17 of its 46 misses, giving MSU something to work on going forward, but even that fact can be offset by another box score number: 24 Florida A&M turnovers with nine MSU steals.
With knowledge that solid help is coming on ball screens and at times elite rim protection -- MSU blocked 13 Rattler shots Saturday night -- it opens MSU's guards to be a little more aggressive on the perimeter.
"We feel like we can let guys go now instead of picking up a lot of fouls," Peters said. "We know we have rim protectors."
Peters would know better than most -- he had four steals against Florida A&M, at times leading to transition opportunities for his five assists, MSU's 14 fastbreak points and 25 points off turnovers. Peters said freshman guard Nick Weatherspoon also brings, "a lot of energy on defense."
As Howland pointed out after the fact, MSU did it all with two fewer players than normal. Guard Xavian Stapleton missed the game with a knee injury while forward Eli Wright was out for a violation of team rules; Wright will be back for Monday's game against Wisconsin-Green Bay while Howland is hopeful Stapleton's return is in the near future.
"We're just a better defensive team," Howland said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson