January 8, 2019 9:56:02 AM
STARKVILLE -- Maturity lends a certain amount of gravitas to a team.
At this point last season, the Mississippi State men's basketball was 12-1 prior to its Southeastern Conference opener. In many respects, though, the Bulldogs were an unknown commodity. MSU's biggest non-conference victories came against Stephen F. Austin and Dayton at home. The loss was a 65-50 setback to No. 25 Cincinnati at Highland Heights, Kentucky.
This season, the return of MSU's top five scorers has given coach Ben Howland one of the nation's most experienced teams. The addition of talented newcomers Reggie Perry and Robert Woodard II, the two-time Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year from Columbus High School, has bolstered a rotation that has eight players averaging double-digit minutes.
At 8 p.m. Tuesday (ESPNU), No. 14 MSU (12-1) will put that experience to the test when it takes on South Carolina in its SEC opener at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina.
Howland feels the experience Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters, Aric Holman, Tyson Carter, and Nick Weatherspoon gained from the 25-win season in 2017-18 has been a key to the Bulldogs' fast start this season.
"They've grown and improved from that point a year ago with all of the experience they gained and all of the work they put in in the offseason," Howland said. "They have had a good non-conference to this point. I think we're a little more talented with the additions of Reggie Perry and Robert Woodard. I think that has definitely helped us, too, because they are two very fine freshmen who are getting better every day and really making a difference in terms of our depth and our talent."
MSU has five players in double figures, led by Quinndary Weatherspoon, who is averaging 17.2 points per game. Peters is next at 13.2 ppg., followed by Holman (12.5), Carter (10.5), and Nick Weatherspoon (10.1). A year ago, MSU had four players in double figures.
Peters has raised his scoring average six points from last season, which is one of the biggest individual improvements on the team. The Bulldogs also have 16 more assists and 24 fewer turnovers and are shooting 38.2 percent from 3-point range, compared to 31.6 percent last season.
The improved shooting percentage doesn't mean MSU is relying more on 3-pointers. The Bulldogs have attempted only 29 more 3-pointers compared to last season. Improved efficiency from Peters (45.2 percent field goal percentage this season vs. 29.5 last season) has a lot to do with the Bulldogs' highest national ranking since they were ranked No. 11 on Jan. 11, 2005, in The Associated Press Top 25. It also is MSU's best ranking since it was No. 14 in the USA Today/Coaches Top 25 on Dec. 26, 2011.
"He is playing better in a lot of ways," Howland said of Peters. "He is stronger. He is a better defensive player. I think he's matured a lot physically just from experience. ... He is playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of swag. He has been very good for us throughout this non-conference."
As much improvement as MSU has made, Howland said his team's defense needs to get better. The Bulldogs are 13th in the SEC in field goal percentage defense (42.8 percent). Alabama is last at 44.1 percent, but the Crimson Tide upset the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats 77-75 on Saturday. Alabama held Kentucky to 43.1 percent shooting from the field to earn the victory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Howland said MSU will face a tough test against a South Carolina team that is coming off a 71-69 victory against Florida on Saturday in Gainesville, Florida. Chris Silva's dunk with 2.5 seconds left gave the Gamecocks (6-7, 1-0), who trailed by as many as 14 points in the second half, the victory. Silva had all 18 of his points in the second half.
MSU also will have to contend with freshman guard A.J. Lawson, who is leading the Gamecocks at 13.2 ppg. Silva is averaging 12.9, while redshirt senior guard Hassani Gravett is averaging 10.8.
MSU (12-1) beat BYU 103-81 on Saturday, Dec. 29, in Starkville for its ninth-straight victory. MSU is one of four SEC teams that won't play in the sixth-annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge, which will be Saturday, Jan. 26. As a result, MSU has had a longer layoff between games. Still, Howland feels the Bulldogs "got a lot done" since their last game. He said the team is "reasonably healthy" and that it has had good practices and plenty of rest. He said the Bulldogs also have gotten back into a routine of working in the weight room to stay in shape.
n NOTE: MSU is one of four SEC teams in the national rankings. Tennessee (No. 3 AP, No. 3 USA Today), Auburn (No. 11, No. 10), and Kentucky (No. 18 in both) also are ranked. ... MSU will play host to Ole Miss at noon Saturday (WCBI) in its SEC home opener.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.