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Mississippi State’s Ben Howland has coached college basketball for 37 years, 24 as a head coach. Only once before has he conducted a team meeting as emotional as the one last Thursday in Nashville when he told his Bulldogs their season was over.
“At Pittsburgh in 2001, our first meeting after what happened on 9/11 was extremely emotional for all involved,” Howand said Monday. “We had players and assistant coaches who had lost both family and friends. It was a really painful time for all of us.”
That Pittsburgh team went on to be a Top 10 team, reach the NCAA’s Sweet 16 and finish with a 29-6 record.
What made last Thursday’s meeting so emotional for Howland and his Bulldogs was that they will never find out how far they might have gone.
“We were playing our best basketball,” Howland said. “We had played ourselves into the position of having a double bye in the SEC Tournament. We only had to win three games to win the tournament. Honestly, I thought we had a really good chance to do that.”
State won 11 of its last 15 SEC games and finished the season with a 20-11 overall record. After losing three straight to start the conference season, State finished 11-7 in the SEC.
We’ll never know for certain, but the Bulldogs probably needed to win a game, possibly two, to make the NCAA Tournament field.
“I really, really felt good about it,” Howland said. “Our practices leading up to the tournament were great. I think to a man, we felt good about our chances.”
Last Thursday, the team was already on the bus to ride to one final practice in Nashville when Howland received a cellphone call informing him that the SEC Tournament was canceled and the season was over. It was then his task to inform his team.
“I’ll never forget that, having to look guys like Tyson Carter and Reggie Perry in the eyes and tell them it’s over, seeing the pain in their faces,” Howland said. “It was emotional for them, emotional for me. I mean, this is what you work for all year long. This is what you talk about all year long. It was gut-wrenching, devastating for our players.”
Perry, a sophomore All-SEC forward, is likely to be drafted by the NBA and never wear MSU’s maroon and white again.
“Reggie’s a pro. He’s ready for the NBA,” Howland said. “I think it’s 100 percent that he’s played his last college ball.”
Tyson Carter, son of one of State’s all-time greats Greg Carter, is a senior and a major four-year contributor to State. He added 22 pounds of muscle to his slender frame during his time as a Bulldog.
“Not being able to finish the season, see how far we could go is one of the most disappointing things that has happened in my life,” Carter said. “Getting to play at Mississippi State was the realization of a life-long dream, but not getting to finish my senior season is just very disappointing. March is what you spend all that time working toward, all summer, all fall, all that time in the weight room, all those long practices. It’s not supposed to end this way.
“We thought we could win in Nashville. We were confident. We were definitely playing our best basketball, peaking at the right time.”
Howland has no doubts Carter will make a living in basketball – in Europe, if not in the NBA.
“I think Tyson will play at least another 10 years,” Howland said. “I’ve never coached a better pure shooter. He never missed a single game for us in four years here. Pound for pound, he might have been the strongest, most durable guy on our team. Yeah, he’ll make a good living playing this game.”
Former State great Bailey Howell, the most accomplished basketball player in Mississippi history, is now 83 years old. He still says not getting the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament remains the biggest disappointment in his life. Howell’s MSU teams were not allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament because Mississippi teams at the time were not allowed to play against racially integrated teams.
“We never got a chance to see how good we were,” Howell has said. “It still hurts.”