SEC Summer Basketball Notebook: Offseason adversity for Howland's Bulldogs

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

Mississippi State has a losing record (30-33) through two full seasons of the Ben Howland era and that's probably not how they drew it up.

Turnarounds aren't easy.

Turnarounds are even harder when a coach and a program have to deal with unexpected transfer decisions that create a void.



Last year as a freshman, Mario Kegler was Mississippi State's third-leading scorer (9.7 PPG) and their second-leading rebounder (5.5 RPG). He was expected to be a big part of the program's continued building effort.

Then, at the beginning of the summer, Kegler decided to transfer. He'll head to Baylor, and he leaves behind a coach who's still looking for answers.

"Mario did not really let us know that he was going to do that (transfer) until the very end of May," Howland told reporters on the SEC's summer basketball teleconference this week.

Cue the positive spin, or an attempt at it.

"And so what it does," Howland explained, "it gives us another scholarship we have for this coming season, unless we decide to use that this year, which remains to be seen. But in terms of our depth, at the end of the day I think it's the best thing long-term and I think our guys have been great ... (it) creates more opportunities for somebody else."

Howland was saying what any coach needed to say. Be the steadying hand, encourage those who stayed, paint a rosy picture.

But he clearly wasn't thrilled.

"Mario played the second most minutes on our team," Howland said. "Took the third most shots. For him to want to leave that kind of situation was a little bit surprising but we wish him well."

Kegler's unexpected departure aside, Howland painted a picture of a program with a lot to be excited about. Of course, he's got to say that, and maybe it's true. But it doesn't make Kegler's decision sting any less.

Howland said the remaining players on the 2017-18 squad have a good chemistry and work ethic.

"I'm excited about a couple of the new kids who didn't play last year," Howland said. "Abdul Ado redshirted. KeyShawn Feazell is better than I had hoped at this point."

Feazell and Ado should help the Bulldogs in the paint. Feazell, a 6-foot-8 power forward, still has work to do on his body. But they're two big men that should give the Bulldogs a presence inside.

Last year Mississippi State was the youngest college basketball team in Division I hoops. This year Howland's program will still be young, but they'll be markedly more experienced and older.

"We don't have a senior in the program," Howland is quick to point out. "...still very young (but) a lot more experienced than a year ago."

Junior Quinndary Weatherspoon, a 6-foot-4 guard, was one of the SEC's leading scorers last season (16.5 PPG). He shot 37-percent from long range, grabbed five boards per contest and had a lot of steals on the defensive end.

Howland said Weatherspoon had pins removed from his surgically repaired wrist on his off hand last week, and that shouldn't be the kind of issue that impacts his play when the regular season begins. The Bulldogs will need Weatherspoon to be at his best if they have any chance of mounting a dark horse NCAA tournament push.

Weatherspoon isn't the only current Bulldog being nursed back to health. E.J. Datcher, another big man and a player who was much less impactful last season, is coming off shoulder surgery to repair his labrum.

"Thankfully we're sustaining some of these issues during the offseason," Howland said. "In terms of our expectations, no question we have higher expectations. I think we'll be an improved team."

Just what you'd expect him to say, although it seems undeniable that for Mississippi State, the climb might be a little more uphill than for some other SEC programs in 2017-18.

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