Next to the Florida Gators and Kentucky Wildcats, the Mississippi State Bulldogs have had the most SEC regular season titles and SEC tournament wins since 2002. Despite this, the Bulldogs have been a consistent bottom feeder in the conference over the past few seasons.
To combat its recent struggles, Mississippi State parted ways with head coach Rick Ray and brought in a coach who went to the Final Four with the UCLA Bruins, Ben Howland.
Howland inherits a squad that looks extremely talented on paper, but consistently failed to meet expectations. Seniors Craig Sword, Fred Thomas and Gavin Ware have been great players throughout their college careers, but failed to close out games. Last season, the Bulldogs lost nine of their 19 losses by two possessions or less. If Howland can fix that, then this team can immediately contend for an NCAA tournament berth.
The real key to this team’s success, however, will be how quickly five-star recruit Malik Newman can adjust to the college game. Newman looks to be a fantastic college player, but he will have to figure out how to succeed on a team where he will likely not be the go-to player. Newman learning to play a role will not only help Mississippi State this season, but should aid Newman’s likely NBA future, making it a win-win for both sides if he can succeed.
In non-conference play, the Bulldogs have a fairly easy schedule. Their toughest opponent will be the highly underrated Florida State Seminoles on the road. Next to FSU, Mississippi State should not lose a game. Avoiding bad losses will be key in non-conference play, because just one could be the difference between a successful or disappointing season.
In conference play, Mississippi State will fight it out with several talented teams for a potential spot in the 2016 NCAA tournament. The Wildcats, Texas A&M Aggies and LSU Tigers are the favorites, but the Georgia Bulldogs, Auburn Tigers, Ole Miss Rebels, Vanderbilt Commodores and Gators all look to be teams capable of making a push to the Big Dance. The Bulldogs must finish in the top six of the SEC if they are to stand a chance of participating in March Madness and might need to finish even higher due to their weak non-conference schedule.
Although it is a bit much to expect the Bulldogs to win the SEC, Howland’s squad is one of the most experienced in the conference, and they desperately need to focus at the end of games. By adding a player as talented as Newman, I do not think it is a stretch to say that Mississippi State is a potential top four team in the SEC, and it could make the tournament.