By JOEL COLEMAN
It was midway through the first half on Saturday when head coach Ben Howland and his Mississippi State Bulldogs had seen enough. As had been the case since Southeastern Conference play tipped off, MSU was primarily utilizing a zone defense. Its opponent was shooting over it.
Tennessee was on a 13-0 run and led 21-9. The Mississippi State players were getting ready for a change.
“The zone wasn’t helping,” MSU freshman Quinndary Weatherspoon said. “Tennessee didn’t shoot that well in their last few games, but they came out and hit a lot of 3-pointers.
“In the second half, the (man-to-man) defense really got aggressive. We wanted to play man then and told Coach Howland we wanted to play man.”
The change in strategy led to a Bulldog comeback. Though it fell short, as the Volunteers went on to claim an 80-75 win, Howland said Saturday’s game will have long-lasting effects on how MSU plays the rest of the season.
“We’re better playing man-to-man,” Howland said. “That’s what I believe in as a coach. We’ve got to get away from (zone) and live and die with our man-to-man defense.”
Tennessee was just the latest team to shoot over MSU’s zone. The Bulldogs have given up 44 total 3-pointers in their four SEC games this year. MSU’s conference opponents are shooting 45.4 percent from beyond the arc.
That long-distance success against the Bulldogs has led to Mississippi State’s first 0-4 start in league play since the 1992-93 season.
“Who knows where we’d be if we’d been playing straight man the last four games,” Howland said. “I don’t know, but I think we probably would have snuck a win in there somewhere. That’s on me.”
The first step towards fixing MSU’s woes may have been taken against the Vols. When players told Howland they were ready to go man-to-man, MSU’s first-year leader, who was already thinking the same, enjoyed the confidence exuded from his team.
“I like hearing that,” Howland said. “I like hearing ‘Coach, let’s get out of this stupid zone and play man.’
Mississippi State never did capture a second-half lead against Tennessee, but sparked by their new defensive assignments, the Bulldogs did pull within one point late. Such results gave hope to a team desperate for any good fortune.
“Getting out of the zone, it has a lot of breaking points,” MSU senior center Gavin Ware said. “In the man, everyone was not just on one spot. Everybody was to a man and I think that helped a lot.”
It won’t be long before MSU’s new defensive strategy gets its first test. The Bulldogs head to Florida to take on the Gators on Tuesday at 6 p.m. While Howland admits it has been a frustrating past couple of weeks, he’s optimistic what happened Saturday can serve to spark a turnaround.
“I think already a weight has been lifted,” Howland said. “We’re scrapping the zone. Let’s just man it up here and be responsible. It’s been my fault, period. It’s not their fault.”