Five things to know about Kentucky basketball’s next opponent, the Mississippi State Bulldogs:
1. After a soft non-conference schedule, Mississippi State has struggled in SEC play
Ben Howland’s Bulldogs rolled through November and December, beating up on one mid-major after another. They beat Alabama State, Florida A&M, Green Bay, Stephen F. Austin, Jacksonville State, North Dakota State, Dayton and North Georgia before a Dec. 12 road trip to then-No. 25 Cincinnati.
The eight-game win streak hit the wall right there. Cincinnati 65, Mississippi State 50. And after four more wins over mid-majors (Tennessee-Martin, Little Rock, Southern Miss and North Florida), the Bulldogs' dip into league action has played out much like that visit to UC.
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After a 78-75 win over Arkansas in its conference opener, MSU has lost four of its past five games. It dropped a 64-58 decision at archrival Ole Miss. It was blitzed 71-54 at Florida. It lost at home to Auburn, 76-68. It did beat Vanderbilt 80-62 on Jan. 16, but then it lost 68-62 at Alabama last Saturday.
To be fair, the Bulldogs trailed Bama by 20 points in the first half and 19 at halftime (41-22) before a furious rally pulled MSU to within a point of Avery Johnson’s team with five minutes to go. Alas, the comeback died there, leaving Mississippi State 14-5 overall and 2-4 in the SEC.
By the way, MSU is currently No. 81 in the Kenpom ratings. The Bulldogs are an impressive 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency, but 183rd in adjusted offensive efficiency.
2. Ben Howland usually starts turning programs around in year three
And this is the 60-year-old Howland’s third year in Starkville after spending 10 seasons in Westwood as the head coach at UCLA.
An Oregon native who played his college basketball at Weber State and Gonzaga, Howland’s first college head coaching job was at Northern Arizona, where he went 9-17 and 7-19 his first two seasons. In Howland’s third year, however, the Lumberjacks went 21-7 and made the NIT. He spent five seasons as the Northern Arizona coach, going 79-59, before being hired by Pittsburgh.
In Howland’s first two seasons at Pitt, the Panthers went 13-15 and 19-14. The third season? You got it. Pitt improved to 29-6 and reached the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the first of two consecutive seasons. After an 89-40 record in four seasons, Howland was hired to revive UCLA’s fortunes.
In his first two seasons in Westwood, the Bruins went 11-17 and 18-11. Again, the third year was the charm. UCLA went 32-7 in 2005-06, reaching the NCAA Tournament final, where the Bruins lost to Florida. UCLA again reached the Final Four in 2007, finishing 30-6. In 2008, it reached the Final Four for a third straight season. UCLA ended that season 35-4.
It was all downhill after that for Howland, however. Over his final five seasons, the Bruins won just two NCAA Tournament games in three appearances. After going 233-107 in 10 seasons, Howland received a pink slip and was out of coaching for two seasons.
He surfaced in Starkville in 2015, hired by then-MSU athletic director Scott Strickin to replace Rick Ray. The Bulldogs went 14-17 in Howland’s first season and 16-16 last year. They need just two more victories to match last season’s win total, although at this point an NCAA Tournament berth looks like a stretch.
3. Quinndary Weatherspoon is Mississippi State’s best player
The 6-foot-4 junior guard from Canton, Miss., leads the team in scoring at 14.5 points per game and assists at 4.1 per game. He has scored in double figures in his past four games and six of his last seven games.
Weatherspoon is shooting 50.5 percent from the floor and 31.4 percent from three-point range. His scoring average is down from last season’s 16.5 per game.
He scored a season-high 22 points against North Georgia, then matched that in the SEC win over Arkansas. He had a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds in MSU’s win over Anthony Grant and Dayton.
Last season, Weatherspoon scored 15 points, grabbed three rebounds and dished two assists against Kentucky. As a freshman, he scored eight points with three rebounds against UK.
Quinndary’s younger brother, Nick, a freshman, is third on the team in scoring at 10.3 points per game. Nick Weatherspoon is averaging 2.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.
4. Kentucky native Aric Holman returns to the Bluegrass
The 6-10 forward from Owensboro is second on the team in scoring at 12.1 points per game and leads the Bulldogs in rebounding at 7.3 per game.
Holman led Owensboro to the Boys’ State Tournament title in 2015, scoring 20 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and blocking eight shots in the Red Devils’ 74-58 championship game win over Bowling Green.
He averaged 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds as a freshman in 2015-16 under Howland. Last season, with increased playing time, Holman’s numbers improved to 8.4 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.
This season, he is coming off consecutive double-doubles, with 18 points and 14 rebounds in Mississippi State’s win over Vanderbilt and 11 points and 10 rebounds in the loss at Alabama. Holman has posted five double-doubles this season. He scored a season-high 23 points in the team’s win over North Florida.
5. Mississippi State has lost nine straight to Kentucky
The Bulldogs haven’t beaten Kentucky since Rick Stansbury and Co. beat Billy Gillispie’s Cats 66-57 in Starkville on Feb. 3, 2009.
After that, Stansbury went 0-3 vs. Calipari and UK. Stansbury’s successor, Rick Ray, went 0-4 vs. Calipari and UK. Howland is 0-3 vs. Calipari and UK, although the last two were close. Kentucky beat the Bulldogs 80-74 in Rupp on Jan. 12, 2016. Last season, the Cats pulled out an 88-81 win in Starkville on Jan. 17, 2017.
Howland and Calipari have an NCAA Tournament history. In 2006, Howland’s UCLA Bruins beat Calipari’s Memphis Tigers 50-45 in the West Region final to reach the Final Four, where they lost to Florida in the title game.
In 2008, Calipari and Memphis defeated Howland UCLA 78-63 in the national semifinal at the Final Four in San Antonio. Memphis then lost to Kansas 75-68 in overtime in the championship game.
MISSISSIPPI STATE AT KENTUCKY
When: Tuesday, 9 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena in Lexington
TV: ESPN with Joe Tessitore, Sean Farnham and Laura Rutledge
Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt
Mississippi State basketball 2017-18
Stephen F. Austin
North Dakota State
vs. Southern Miss