Bulldogs feel more prepared for league play

Mississippi State's Aric Holman goes up for a shot against BYU.

Staff Writer

Not all records are created equal.

After Mississippi State defeated BYU 103-81 last Saturday, MSU wrapped up the non-conference portion of its basketball schedule sporting a 12-1 record. It’s the exact same non-league mark the Bulldogs had last year.

However, with Southeastern Conference play now on tap starting on Tuesday at South Carolina, MSU feels much different about 12-1 this go-around as opposed to a season ago.

“I’d say it feels different just because of how we prepared for every game,” Mississippi State senior forward Aric Holman said. “There’s been no, ‘We can get by just with this’ kind of game. Every game (this season) was against a quality team with great scorers and great leadership so we had to come prepared every game.”

It was a priority for Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland to beef up MSU’s non-conference schedule for this season. Quality opponents were lacking for the Bulldogs on last year’s slate, which hindered State’s chances for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. MSU ultimately settled for a spot in last year’s National Invitation Tournament.

Mississippi State’s sights are set higher this season. The Bulldogs have a team that is perhaps poised to snap a decade-long NCAA Tournament drought. They proved as much with their performance over the season’s first two months against high-caliber foes.

“Being 12-1 with the schedule we had this year – it was daunting,” Howland said. “That win at Dayton … that’s one of the toughest places in the country to play. Clemson on a neutral court was tough. The Cincinnati win was phenomenal. Cincinnati is really good. If you told me Cincinnati got to the Elite Eight this year or Final Four, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Wofford, I’ll be shocked if they don’t get in the tournament and I’ll be shocked if they don’t win in the tournament. That’s how good I think they are. Some of these games are very difficult games and I don’t know if it’s appreciated quite as much (as it should be).”

The question is now this – can the Bulldogs keep it up as SEC play starts in January? Howland likes where his team sits entering league action. However he says MSU’s success, or lack of it, will hinge on one main factor.
“These next 10 weeks are big for us and the biggest key for us is the same thing I said at the beginning of the season – we’ve got to stay healthy,” Howland said. “If we stay healthy, I’m confident we will do real well.”

If MSU indeed keeps racking up the wins, there can finally once again be Bulldogs in the big dance come March.

“This is the best team we’ve had obviously in my tenure here and this team has a chance to do something special in my opinion if we keep grinding away and keep working hard,” Howland said. “It’s all about the hard work you put in and putting the time in. I’m really happy for our players.”