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Post by zemek » Tue Feb 13, 2018 12:18 pm

SEC basketball is no longer divided into East and West, but it remains the case that playing two games against what was formerly a cross-divisional foe is rare. It happens Wednesday when Vanderbilt hosts Mississippi State in the back end of a league home-and-home set.

Part of the backdrop to this game involves Vanderbilt's recent run of form in which the Commodores have been fantastic at home but still wobbly enough on the road to fall short. Much like last season, Vanderbilt has been better in Memorial Gym once the Big 12-SEC Challenge arrived, a mystery as profound as the apparitions at Lourdes or the tales of the Loch Ness Monster. Vanderbilt doesn't need to reason why; the Dores merely need to make reply and continue to reinforce their newfound (again) home-court confidence.

The limitation found in that aspiration comes from the fact that sports are dialogues. The other competitor -- no matter how good its opposition might be -- has a say in the outcome. It might not dominate the conversation, but it shapes it.

Mississippi State is smack dab in the middle of the bubble conversation. The Bulldogs aren't drowning in the SEC at 6-6, but they aren't safely on the boat headed for Bracketville. They have a life preserver with their heads fully and safely above water, the boat in sight... but they need to catch up to the boat. Too many empty-calorie wins in the non-conference portion of the schedule mean that the Bulldogs don't have the overall scheduling heft or "quadrant" wins the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee is hoping for.

This game against Vanderbilt is essential for Mississippi State to win -- not because Vanderbilt is a bad team (as established many times in recent weeks, the Dores are an average team), but because the Commodores' metrics would make this a comparatively bad loss for MSU's resume. If the Bulldogs want a good win to count, they can't offset a good win with a profile-denting defeat.

The Bulldogs have done reasonably well in SEC play, but their story has yet to be written in full. They have improved over the course of the season, but not to the point where they have established themselves as an upper-tier SEC team. The three teams tied with MSU at 6-6 in the SEC -- Kentucky, Texas A&M and Arkansas -- all have markedly better NCAA Tournament resumes and would make the Big Dance if the Selection Show occurred today. (This article was written Tuesday morning; even if Arkansas lost to Ole Miss Tuesday night, the result not being available at the time of publication, the Hogs would still be in, albeit barely.) Mississippi State's non-conference schedule was conspicuously poor, and the team has just one road win in SEC competition. This is why the Bulldogs would not make the tournament as of this moment; it's also why this team remains hard to know.

It is little different with its current head coach.


Think of all the coaches who have made at least three Final Fours. Just take a little time to chew that one over.

The first names that come to mind are all the obvious ones who have reached far more than three Final Fours: Wooden, Coach K, Izzo, Roy, Calipari, Pitino, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Denny Crum, Jim Calhoun, Boeheim, Lute Olson, Billy Donovan, Bob Knight, and a few others.

Then there are coaches who made three or more Final Fours more than 45 or 50 years ago. Henry Iba made four with Oklahoma State (then called Oklahoma A&M). Ed Jucker made three with the Cincinnati Bearcats in the early 1960s, and Fred Taylor made four in the 1960s with the Ohio State Buckeyes, as but a few examples among others. They aren't part of modern college basketball discussions simply because of their lack of historical proximity to the present day.

In the past 30 years -- since Larry Brown made his third Final Four in 1988 at Kansas (note: vacated NCAA Final Fours are not considered part of final totals; coaches still guided their teams to the Final Four regardless of anything the NCAA says or does) -- only three coaches have notched a third Final Four without making a subsequent fourth appearance.

One is Nolan Richardson (third appearance in 1995). One is Eddie Sutton (2004).

The other is Ben Howland (2008).

Richardson and Sutton are living out their years, both beloved at the places where they reached their third and last Final Fours -- Richardson at Arkansas, Sutton at Oklahoma State (after making his first Final Four at Arkansas in 1978). They aren't in the center of the public spotlight, but when their names are brought up, nearly everyone in the room would immediately say, "Yep, great coach -- tremendous accomplishments and staying power. Left a large mark."

Would college basketball fans -- especially those at UCLA -- say the same of Howland?

It is hard to get into the realm of empirical fact, but my instincts tell me that would not be the case.

10 years do not represent an insignificant amount of time in this life, but they also do not represent an eternity. 10 years ago, our lives were probably very different from what they are today, but smartphones and social media had come into existence. Hillary Clinton was running for president in 2008. The world wasn't unrecognizable.

30 years ago (1988)? That's much more different than a 10-year gap, a far more profound separation between two different realms of existence.

10 years after Kansas beat Memphis in the national title game, Mario Chalmers' 3-point shot is still revered in Lawrence. People still love to rag John Calipari for his teams missing late-game foul shots (partly because his Kentucky teams still struggled last season). North Carolina is still at the top tier of the sport, just as it was then.

Ben Howland -- who coached in that 2008 Final Four, making his third straight run to college basketball's ultimate showcase -- is toiling in Starkville, Mississippi. He isn't coaching a powerhouse akin to Kentucky or Florida in this decade of SEC basketball. He isn't coaching one of the season's soaring feel-good stories in the SEC, Auburn or Tennessee. He is doing a good job, but not a spectacularly good job, which in many ways describes not only his current Mississippi State team, but his coaching career and his UCLA tenure in particular.

The whole of Howland's 10-year run at UCLA had its flaws and disappointments, and it is clear that it ran out of steam at the end, meriting a dismissal and the installment of a new coach (though Steve Alford wouldn't have been my first choice). Nevertheless, if viewed as a 10-year block, three Final Fours in 10 seasons should be viewed as a first-rate achievement at any program. Yes, Howland failed to build on what he did from 2006-2008, and he was rightly pushed aside as a result, but whereas coaches can luck into one national title run (Hello, Kevin Ollie!) or one national title game appearance (Howdy, Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech in 2004, or Mike Davis of Indiana in 2002!), it is hard to backdoor into three Final Fours.

Howland's coaching chops are substantial. He took two other schools (Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh) to the NCAA Tournament, and he guided Pitt to the Sweet 16. He mentored Jamie Dixon, who is -- like Howland -- a skilled program-builder.

Howland ought to receive more credit than he deserves, but if asked why his accomplishments don't contain the same resonance of other men to have made three Final Fours, I would offer this answer:

Howland-coached teams aren't aesthetically memorable. When one thinks of the great NCAA Tournament games in history -- especially this century -- does a UCLA game involving a Howland team ever come to mind?

Yes -- but only the 2006 comeback against Gonzaga, made possible by the Zags' collapse. UCLA's Final Four win during the Howland run, over LSU in 2006, quite possibly remains the worst Final Four national semifinal ever played. It certainly rates as one of the worst Final Four games of all time, and will never be dislodged from that position.

Howland is a blue-collar coach who produces worker-bee teams committed to screening, working around screens, and being tougher than the opponent. With star players, he could move mountains at UCLA and elsewhere, but when recruiting dries up or someone such as Malik Newman transfers from Starkville to Bill Self and Kansas, the uphill nature of the battle becomes more pronounced.

Howland flourished at NAU, Pitt and UCLA, but Mississippi State represented a return to the coaching business in a quieter and more humble context. We are seeing the improvement one expects from a Ben Howland program, but the progress is not as pronounced because of the comparative lack of star power on hand.

Rick Stansbury's recruiting combined with Ben Howland's game coaching and player development would probably create a knockout combination. Mississippi State made NCAA Tournaments with Stansbury's lights-out assemblages of talent, but never capitalized on that talent in terms of making deep March runs. MSU now has a coach who lacks Stansbury's magic touch on the trail but creates more committed players when they buy into his philosophy.

Can Ben Howland push Mississippi State over the threshold and into the realm at Pittsburgh where a struggling program finds fresh life? Doing this on the upswing of a coach's career, in a more basketball-saturated market in the Steel City, was easier. Doing it after the tumult and the shouting have subsided, 10 years after his third Final Four at UCLA -- and in Starkville -- is much harder.

What to expect from Mississippi State basketball?

What is the identity of this program?

What is its direction?

These are all as unclear as the basketball reputation of Ben Howland. How he writes the next part of history might, weirdly enough, affect how previous chapters are remembered.

Where then, Ben?
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