Mississippi State still trying to turn corner under Howland
The quick fix for Mississippi State's basketball program looked like a simple three-step process.
First, hire a coach who has been to three Final Fours. Next, combine him with a McDonald's All-American freshman guard who is considered a can't-miss prospect. And finally, watch the wins pile up.
Turns out it's not that easy.
Mississippi State (7-8, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) is still struggling halfway through the first season of coach Ben Howland, who is best known for leading UCLA to three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008. The Bulldogs host Tennessee (8-8, 1-3) on Saturday.
The 58-year-old Howland - who has a long track record of success during stops at Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and UCLA - is still confident that the Bulldogs can improve quickly and ward off a fourth straight losing season.
''We aren't that far away,'' Howland said.
There's evidence that Howland has a point. The Bulldogs were very competitive in recent losses against No. 15 Texas A&M and No. 14 Kentucky. They lost by just one point to the Aggies and rallied from a 20-point deficit on the road against the Wildcats before falling 80-74.
Now the Bulldogs host the Volunteers - who also have a first-year coach in veteran Rick Barnes - in an important game for both teams as they try to gain traction in conference play.
''We are back home and we have to have that resolve when we show up and play Saturday,'' Howland said.
Mississippi State's improvement likely hinges on the development of freshman guard Malik Newman. The 6-foot-3 Newman - a McDonald's All-American from Jackson, Mississippi, who was among the nation's most coveted recruits last season - is averaging 13.1 points per game.
That would be great for most freshmen, but more is expected from Newman. Howland said before the season that he expected the guard to be a ''one-and-done'' player before declaring for the NBA draft, but the guard has looked fairly ordinary in most games.
Howland said that there's so much hype surrounding elite players that fans are expecting consistent excellence from the first game, but the transition from high school success to college isn't always instant.
''I think he's doing a good job,'' Howland said. ''I think he's improving.''
Newman's best quality is his shooting - he's hitting 38.4 percent of his 3-point attempts - but he's struggled to create his own shot and isn't impacting the game much on defense.
''We just have to continue doing what we do and never give up,'' Newman said.
With Newman still developing, Mississippi State's offense has focused on forward Gavin Ware. The 6-foot-9 senior is averaging a career-best 16.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
Ware is part of a veteran nucleus that includes Craig Sword, Fred Thomas and I.J. Ready.
''I don't think it's a really deep team, but they've got obviously some guys who've played a lot of basketball in this league,'' Barnes said.
Now that group is finally hoping to turn that experience into success.
''We need to get our first `W,''' Howland said. ''And our best chance is our next game.''
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, contributed to this story.
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