South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches.
Oct. 31 Alabama
Nov. 1 Arkansas
Nov. 2 Auburn
Nov. 3 Florida
Nov. 4 Georgia
Nov. 5 Kentucky
Nov. 6 LSU
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Ben Howland (first year); 401-206, 20th year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 13-19 (6-12)
2014-15 postseason: None
He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): Coach Rick Ray (fired), G Trivante Bloodman (3.8 ppg, 1.5 rpg), G Isaiah Butler (0.0 ppg, 0.3 rpg), G Jeffery Johnson (0.0 ppg, 0.3 rpg), F Roquez Johnson (9.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg), G Maurice Dunlap (transferred to Jones (Miss.) Junior College, 2.9 ppg, 0.6 rpg), F Oliver Black (transferred to Arkansas-Little Rock, 1.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): Howland, 6-6 G Xavian Stapleton (transferred from Louisiana Tech, will sit out this year), 6-0 G Carter Holmes (So., did not play last year), 6-9 F Joe Strugg, 6-4 G Quinndary Weatherspoon, 6-3 G Malik Newman, 6-4 G Jett Jobe, 6-10 F Aric Holman
Top returners: 6-3 G Craig Sword (11.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg), 6-9 F Gavin Ware (10.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg), 5-11 G I.J. Ready (8.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
Rick Ray got a raw deal, but it’s business. Mississippi State saw a chance to make a huge splash, did so and is now reaping the benefits.
Ben Howland, who has 10 NCAA tournament appearances, five Sweet 16s and three (consecutive) Final Fours on his resume, wasn’t doing anything when Scott Stricklin called him last season. Ray, who walked into the leftovers of the grime from Rick Stansbury (now the top assistant at Texas A&M) and had slight improvement in three years, was given the heave-ho in favor of new blood.
But Stricklin knew what he was doing, hiring a coach who has been named Big Sky, Pac-10 and Big East Coach of the Year. Howland, who coached Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook at UCLA, has already managed to do what Ray couldn’t in three years. He’s made Bulldog fans excited for men’s basketball, and he did it before he ever coached a game.
Howland hauled in a star-studded freshman class, led by Top-10 recruit Malik Newman. Ray was in on Newman but Howland was able to get the signature when Newman could have gone anywhere.
That opened the door to more big recruits, with Aric Holman also pledging (Quinndary Weatherspoon and Joe Strugg had committed to Ray). With the freshmen joining a group of seniors who are aching for wins after living through some hard times, the Bulldogs could be making a lot of noise in Howland’s first year.
Craig “Chicken” Sword has led the team in scoring for three straight years, playing through a bad back last season after preseason surgery and a hurried return. Gavin Ware, Fred Thomas, I.J. Ready, Travis Daniels and Sword have combined to start nearly 300 games, and with a very talented freshman class joining them, it could be an immediate return to the NCAA tournament. With Newman expected to be one-and-done, that could also open the door to more elite recruiting and keep MSU in the SEC’s upper echelon.
The Hump will be rockin’ again. Maybe Ray can get a thank-you note for at least keeping the program somewhat afloat, despite being handed a leaky lifeboat.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Vic Schaefer (62-38, fourth year; 142-148, 11th year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 27-7 (11-5)
2014-15 postseason: Second round, NCAA
She’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): C Martha Alwal (9.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg), G Kendra Grant (6.0 ppg, 1.6 rpg), G Jerica James (4.9 ppg, 1.6 rpg), G Savannah Carter (1.8 ppg, 1.2 rpg)
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-7 C Teaira McCowan, 5-7 G Roshunda Johnson (Jr., transfer from Oklahoma State, will sit out this year), 5-8 G Jazzmun Holmes, 6-3 C Zion Campbell, 6-0 F Jazmine Spears (Jr., transfer from Trinity Valley (Texas) CC)
Top returners: 6-1 F Victoria Vivians (14.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg), 5-5 G Morgan William (9.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg), 6-1 F Breanna Richardson (8.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Vic Schaefer’s not looking for an encore. He figures that last year was the first note in a symphony that he’s spent his life composing.
The finished opera, if the opening stanza was any indication, is going to be quite a production.
“It’s been fun,” said Schaefer, the AP SEC Coach of the Year and the coaches’ co-SEC Coach of the Year, at SEC Tipoff. “To build the entire program … our fan base now, we’ve sold already to date over 3,000 season tickets and we averaged almost 5,000 fans a game last year. In the SEC, we had 7,300 for a ballgame.”
The Bulldogs are coming off their winningest season ever, one where MSU started 18-0 and won 11 games in the SEC. They bowed out in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but the country was served notice – that bunch in Starkville plays a mean brand of basketball.
Schaefer spent 15 years beside Gary Blair in the SEC, at Arkansas and Texas A&M, and knew he’d learned a lot from his first stint as a head coach (Sam Houston State). When MSU beckoned, he went – and the results were small at first and then a bang.
He signed one Parade All-American last year (Victoria Vivians) and got another this year in 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan. While the Bulldogs lost a strong group of seniors – including defensive maestro Martha Alwal – the freshmen that were able to play last year will be able to lead this year. One of the most frightening things, for Schaefer this year and the league next year, is MSU only has one senior.
Schaefer taught his team defense (it was his specialty under Blair) and then began adding scorers and presences. As he said, his first year when he led the team off the bus, it didn’t look like an SEC team. The game was half-over before it tipped. Now, the Bulldogs signed a 6-7 freshman to add to a 6-5 junior (Chinwe Okorie).
MSU has arrived. Schaefer anticipates a huge crowd for the two biggest games of the season – South Carolina and Tennessee within five days of each other, each at home. The goal is to put 10,000 fans in the Hump.
All of it has been grand to see. But Schaefer wants to sustain it, not just have a couple good years.
“Top 25 teams come and go. Top 20 basketball programs, they’re there every year,” Schaefer said. “You’re just trying to find where they are in the pecking order.”
The Bulldogs are rapidly rising.