Bulldogs hope to put together full game against Wildcats

MSU men's coach Ben Howland
Staff Writer

Ask different people why Mississippi State has found itself on the wrong end of heartbreaking basketball games lately and you’ll get a variety of answers.

When MSU (14-5, 2-4) faces Kentucky (14-5, 0-3) on the road Tuesday night at 8 p.m., the Bulldogs will be looking to finally overcome their recent trend of frustrating losses. State has lost four of their last five games. In two of those contests, MSU had double-digit leads and let them slip away. In one, last Saturday at Alabama, the Bulldogs fought back from a 20-point hole, had the game tied with less than 2 minutes to play, but couldn’t earn the victory.

Tuesday night, State gets another chance, though it comes on the road where MSU has lost its last 11 games.

“We can win anywhere,” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “We just have to go and play 40 minutes and have that mindset.”

Playing a full game has been a problem for State as of late. The Bulldogs have shown promising flashes, but the good moments seem to be coming in 20-minute spurts. At Ole Miss, MSU was up 13 in the first half before collapsing down the stretch. It was a similar story at home against Auburn. At Alabama, MSU played some of its best basketball of the year in the second half, but never earned a lead after trailing by 19 at halftime.
So what’s the missing ingredient to putting a full game together? That depends on who is answering the question.

“It starts in practice,” MSU sophomore guard Lamar Peters said following the Alabama loss. “Our practices need to be good practices. They lead up to the game. We have to practice hard so we can put two halves together or you dig a hole and it’s tough to come back and win.”

Another Bulldog, freshman Nick Weatherspoon, has a different solution.

“I would say we have to play with more energy in the first half and the second half,” Weatherspoon said. “I feel like we have to focus on that. (At Kentucky) we have to focus on our energy through the game because we know it’ll be a hostile crowd, so we have to create our own energy.”

Still, others have different explanations. Both juniors Quinndary Weatherspoon and Aric Holman have mentioned the team needs better leadership at points this season. Howland, while he does say he has players that show leadership qualities, admits the Bulldogs do often miss having an individual that consistently fires up the troops.

“We don’t have that one guy that’s a leader that everyone feeds off of and that’s tough,” Howland said.

Whatever the reason or reasons for MSU’s struggles of late, the Bulldogs will get no sympathy outside of their own locker room. The grind of the Southeastern Conference schedule continues.
Next up is the Wildcats.

This season, Kentucky hasn’t been the traditional power it usually is. The Wildcats have lost three of their last five, including two in a row. Still, the group is talented enough to beat most anyone any given night.

“They’re really good,” Howland said of Kentucky. “They’re long. Maybe the biggest difference between now and past years is they’re playing a huge lineup. (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) is their point guard and he is 6-foot-6.
“They’re also younger. This is probably the youngest team (Kentucky head coach John Calipari) has ever had.”

Kevin Knox leads Kentucky with 14.3 points per game. The forward has scored 20 or more points five times this season.

Guard Hamidou Diallo has also been a key piece for the Wildcats. He averages 13 points and 4.5 rebounds per outing.

Despite dropping out of the Associated Press poll for the first time since March 2014, which snapped a 68-week stretch in the poll, Calipari said on Monday that it's not time to push the panic button at Kentucky.

"I coach at Kentucky, I always have young guys. I don't have them this young, but they're really young," Calipari said. "They're learning to trust each other. I've got to get them to trust each other on both sides of the ball and it just might take more time."

The troubles for the Wildcats are some of the same things the Bulldogs are experiencing because in many ways Howland still has a young squad.

Maybe State’s biggest obstacle though is going to be finding a way to put an entire game together in order to finish off a win. It’s no doubt a good sign for the Bulldogs that they’ve proven they can hang with some of the SEC’s top teams. Yet if MSU wants to take the next step, playing solid basketball for one half simply isn’t going to cut it.

Tuesday night would be as good of a night as any to put all the pieces together.

“This league is going to produce eight teams, minimum, to get to the (NCAA Tournament) this year and you have to play for 40 minutes against that level of competition to have success,” Howland said. “That’s what we’ve got to learn.”