Mississippi State men’s basketball coach Ben Howland shouts instructions to his players in their game against Penn State in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. Photo by: USA TODAY Sports
July 21, 2018 10:01:52 PM
STARKVILLE -- Ben Howland thinks his Mississippi State men's basketball program found what it's been missing in the final month of his third season. It is an abstract element: the 11-6 run to end the season and the surge to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) semifinals was impressive, but not heights the program had not seen before.
Howland thinks his program found continuity, found culture. The sustainable part comes in how they established it: there was no intense meeting to set the scene for what was to come, no turning point to turn to. It was nothing more than players willing to accept a coach's message.
"I think everybody just bought into what Coach Howland was saying and what he wanted us to do," junior guard Quinndary Weaherspoon said. "They took themselves out and did everything as a team."
Howland sees those as the elements, more than anything else, that can take the program to its first NCAA Tournament berth under his leadership. There's a reason it took MSU three years to get it.
Roster continuity for college basketball's non-elites has become as difficult to acquire as roster experience is for the sport's blue bloods; while the top programs recruit players that leave after one season, everyone else recruits players that ultimately transfer, giving both tiers of the sport roster turnover to navigate.
Getting to the comfortable spot he occupies today is not easy, and Howland knows it; that's why he took over the program with a three-year plan to get here. The road MSU travelled to get here shows why he set the plan for that length of time.
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When preseason hype doesn't translate to regular season production in college basketball, a change of scenery is often the end result -- more so than almost any other NCAA sport.
The NCAA released a study into transferring in college athletics in December, listing men's and women's basketball as two of the eight sports where athletes transfer the most from one four-year school to another. The study showed that the transfer rate of roughly 13 percent of men's college basketball players has remained relatively consistent in the last three years, but that consistency comes after a significant increase over the previous decade.
As recently as 2004, the number of men's college basketball players that transferred from four-year to four-year was lower than 10 percent; that number hovered in the 10-11 percent range from 2005-2011 before a big increase in 2012. Since 2012, that number has not been below 12 percent with a high of nearly 14 percent in 2014.
According to verbalcommits.com, at least 800 players have transferred after each of the last three seasons: 829 in 2015, 800 in 2016 and 884 in 2017. The number of transfers in 2018 was 745, a number likely to climb as the summer continues. Howland is well aware of the numbers: in his conversation with The Dispatch, he cited the 800 number and looked at on a per team basis, estimating an average 2.2 transfers per season for each of Division I's 351 programs. As that number climbs
"The transfer thing has been a real epidemic here. There's a lot of turnover, and it's something that is part of our men's basketball culture," Howland told The Dispatch. "It's part of the landscape.
"Everybody wants to play more. They want to be the focus, they want more shots, whatever it is. Look at high school basketball, look at how much transferring is taking place. Look at nationally, how much that happens, or when you follow kids in AAU basketball and how often do kids change AAU teams in a summer. That culture gets carried forward to other areas of basketball."
MSU has not been immune to that epidemic, as 14 players have left the program under Howland's leadership. That number over his three years is higher than the national average, but four of them left in the coaching change, before Howland completed his first season. Oliver Black (Little Rock) and Maurice Dunlap (Jones County Junior College) left before Howland coached a game as a Bulldog; Fallou Ndoye (Cal State Bakersfield) left early in Howland's first season and Demetrious Houston (Alabama State) parted ways with the program during Howland's first season while he was suspended. Howland said at the time he made the decision that Houston would no longer be with the program.
The following season, MSU was dealt its biggest blow of the transfer market: Malik Newman, ranked as the best point guard in his recruiting class by 247 Sports, transferred from MSU to Kansas after one season. Newman was, however, the lone transfer of consequence that offseason: Johnny Zuppardo and Reggie Patterson both left the program but did not continue their college basketball careers elsewhere, Zuppardo doing so after already transferring twice, and Jett Jobe left MSU for Southeastern Oklahoma State in Division II.
MSU also lost a consequential transfer the next season in Mario Kegler, the 2016-17 team's leader in frontcourt minutes and shot attempts. Joe Strugg left the team after ending the season on an undefined suspension and Miles Washington transferred to Northwest Mississippi Community College. This year, MSU came to amicable terms with Eli Wright and Xavian Stapleton as they transferred from the program, Wright to St. John's and Stapleton to Florida Atlanta, Stapleton doing so as a graduate. This came after Schnider Herard left the team midseason, leaving after playing all of 88 minutes in the team's first 13 games, not playing at all in his final two games as a Bulldog.
The consistent defections have put a burden on MSU's staff to recruit in bunches, and it has delivered. If MSU enrolls all four of its signees for the 2018 recruiting class, Howland will have enrolled 17 players in his four recruiting classes, including a massive seven-player 2016 class. The big recruiting numbers combined with the consistent defections have given Howland a roster entirely of his players just three years in: of the eight players that averaged at least 10 minutes per game last season, he signed them all.
The Bulldogs dodged the bullet of another tough recruiting job.
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January 20, 2016, was the day it became much harder for college basketball coaches to manage their rosters. On that Wednesday, the NCAA moved back its deadline for players testing their NBA Draft stock -- at least those doing so without an agent, thus preserving their amateur eligibility -- to late May, whatever the given year's date is for 10 days after the NBA Combine. Previous deadlines fell in early May, giving college coaches a few extra weeks to hit the summer recruiting circuit in emergency mode if they suffer an unexpected departure for the draft.
Since most college seasons end sometime in the first two weeks of March, it forces college programs to wait for up to two months before knowing what holes the roster needs filled. MSU started that waiting process with four players, and its four best players from a season that ended with four postseason wins. It can force coaches to spend the first weeks of their offseason preparing for a hectic late recruitment.
"It's a possibility, yeah, of course. It's very difficult," Howland told The Dispatch. "We're recruiting you, but we're not sure we're going to want you.
"They have until the end of May, and typically by the end of May, there aren't a lot of guys that are undecided. It's a difficult situation."
MSU is not alone.
The NBA announced 181 college players declared for the NBA Draft as early entrants this spring, up from the 137 in 2017 and 162 in 2016. In 2016, 57 early entrants withdrew and 73 did so in 2017. Three Bulldogs did just that this year: sophomore point guard Lamar Peters, freshman guard Nick Weatherspoon and junior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon all declared for the draft just to withdraw in time to maintain their college eligibilities. A fourth, junior forward Aric Holman, planned on declaring for the draft but ultimately decided against it, thus joining the previous three on next year's roster.
With their return and the turnover limited for this offseason, relative to the national scene, this is the group that brings the results of Howland's three-year plan.
"I think it's the biggest thing we got out of this year, I think we have a really good culture now that will be a key for us as we go forward next year and try to achieve our goals," Howland said. "When the freshmen come in now, there's a culture that's here that they're going to learn from. It's important to have everybody pulling in the same direction, we're all on the same page and it's everyone together as one."
In a perfect world, the culture Howland believes MSU will have next season will not only help incoming freshmen adapt to the game, it may entice highly touted recruiting classes. It may have already had that effect, as MSU's 2018 signing class was ranked 15th in the nation by 247 Sports, fourth in the SEC.
A big part of it is Columbus' Robert Woodard, rated as the best player in the state and the 59th-best player in the nation. The list of reasons for him to pick MSU are endless, be it his family ties or the proximity to home, but culture was one of them for him.
"I definitely feel like the program is turning around. The players are more active and things like that not only on-the-court but off-the-court as well," Woodard told The Dispatch. "I'd say about eight to 10 years ago we had a great culture back when I used to go watch the team play, they set a great example for the school in general and a basketball team.
"After the run they went on at the end of the season, almost making the (NCAA) tournament, I feel like they really have that winning mentality now. It's very effective for this group."
That is why, as Stapleton and Wright left while four others toyed with the notion of leaving, Woodard did not worry about his future team. He, like Howland, sees the turnover as part of the college basketball environment.
"With every basketball team you lose a couple of players or something like that, you just never know what to expect with a season," Woodard said. "You have to trust your teammates and I feel like everybody on this team has a special talent or special talents to get the job done."
Three years in the making, Howland feels like his program is ready to get the job done. His boss thinks so, too.
"When that culture is developed, things can happen quickly and things can happen exponentially," MSU Director of Athletics John Cohen told The Dispatch. "When you look at the postseason last year, you really saw some things come together. You see that in women's basketball.
"I'm not in the locker room every day, but I'm in the locker room enough and I'm at practice enough to know the first thing that has to happen is the coach has to capture the attention of his group, and Ben has that."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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