ATHENS — Georgia coach Tom Crean is not unfamiliar with Ben Howland, who will bring his Mississippi State team into Stegeman Coliseum on Wednesday. But it has been a while.
The last time their teams met was in the 2003 NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal in Minneapolis. Crean’s No. 3-seed Marquette team, led by a player named Dwayne Wade, “upset” Howland’s second-seeded Pitt Panthers 77-74. Crean’s Golden Eagles also knocked off No. 1-ranked Kentucky in the next round before finally bowing out to Kansas in the Final Four in New Orleans.
What will that have to do with Wednesday’s matchup at The Steg? Absolutely nothing. But it’s fun to think about.
“We had a great battle on a Thursday night in the old Metrodome,” Crean said before the Bulldogs took the practice floor on Tuesday. “I have a ton of respect for (Howland). I’ve gotten to know him better and better, but I’ve always had huge respect for him, even going back to when he was head coach at Northern Arizona. He is one of the outstanding coaches in the game.”
Both Crean and Howland have negotiated similar career paths, with Crean eventually landing at Indiana and Howland going to UCLA the year after that landmark game.
“He had a guy named Dwyane Wade, who was pretty darn good,” Howland said of that matchup 16 years ago. “In fact in that game, I think he had two or four points at halftime and he had 22 [at the end]. They were really good.”
Wade, a perennial NBA All-Star, scored 20 of his 22 points after halftime, including the game-deciding three-point drive at the end of the game.
The stakes will be quite a bit different when Howland’s Bulldogs meet Crean’s Bulldogs on Wednesday night for a 6:30 p.m. tip (TV: SEC Network; radio: WSB 750-AM & 95.5 FM). At this point, Georgia (10-15, 1-11 SEC) is trying snap a 10-game SEC losing streak and fighting to stay out of the conference cellar with only two weeks left in the regular season. Conversely, Howland’s squad has a good bit more to play for. Mississippi State (18-7, 6-6 SEC) is trying to play it’s way up onto the proverbial bubble and into the school’s first NCAA bid in 10 years.
By all accounts, State has a team capable of doing that. Senior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (18.1 ppg) leads a balanced offensive attack that features six players averaging nine or more points a game. Among those scorers is Reggie Perry, a 6-foot-10, 245-pound freshman who came to Starkville as a 5-star prospect out of Thomasville, Ga.
Now in his fourth year at MSU, Howland finally has his program where Crean wants to take his. But moving up in this league has proven exceedingly difficult as SEC teams seem to have taken seriously the conference-wide initiative set forth a couple of years ago to become more nationally competitive in basketball.
Heading into the final weeks of the regular season, the SEC has two top-5 ranked teams in No. 4 Kentucky and No. 5 Tennessee, three teams in the Top 25 including No. 13 LSU and six teams currently receiving votes in the two recognized poll.
That includes Mississippi State. Howland’s Bulldogs currently are No. 24 and fifth among the five SEC teams in the NCAA’s NET rankings, which take into account strength of schedule and margin of victory. The league is rated No. 2 behind the ACC in overall conference strength.
“That’s a sign of excellent coaching and really good players,” Crean observed. “There’s depth in this league. I’ve never been in a league that combines this level of speed with rebounding. I’ve been in some situations where people have been more half-court oriented and they’re really good rebounding teams. I’ve been in good rebounding leagues, but none like this, top to bottom.”
Though its record doesn’t necessarily reflect it, Georgia is also showing progress. Though it resulted only in a frustratingly close 83-79 loss, the Bulldogs actually played better than they have in a while against No. 13 LSU this past Saturday. They led one of the best teams in league by five midway through the second half.
The key is putting together two strong halves, eliminating costly turnovers and playing consistent defense.
“The bottom line for us is to understand that even when it is not going well, if we stay consistent with our spirit and talk on defense, which has been an issue, stay consistent with our rebounding and moving the ball, then good things will happen to us,” Crean said. “Sometimes we get down and confidence doesn’t carry over like it should, but the other day we just fell a little short at the end.”