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Mississippi State wraps up encouraging 25-win hoops season

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

By DAVID BRANDT

AP Sports Writer

Mississippi State basketball took a big jump forward during coach Ben Howland's third season, giving the proud program much-needed hope after several frustrating seasons.

The Bulldogs finished with a 25-12 record, advancing to the semifinals of the NIT before losing 75-60 to Penn State on Tuesday . Mississippi State had hoped to be a part of the NCAA Tournament field, but struggled in the regular season's final weeks to fall out of contention for an at-large bid.

Still, the NIT marked a return to the postseason and a good experience for a team that should bring back all of its main contributors next season.

"I knew this would be a great experience for us," Howland said last week. "It depends on your team. We're not a senior-laden team. We're a team that doesn't have a senior on it."

Mississippi State was expected to improve this season, partly because of a better roster and partly because of Howland's reputation for success during his third season at previous stops - Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and UCLA.

For the most part, Howland delivered.

The Bulldogs improved in almost every area and finished with a 9-9 record in conference play. Next season, anything less than a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 will almost certainly be a disappointment.

Junior Quinndary Weatherspoon was the team's best all-around player, leading the team with 14.4 points per game while also contributing six rebounds and more than three assists per game. His younger brother, Nick Weatherspoon, averaged nearly 11 points per game during his freshman season and was one of the team's best defenders.

The Weatherspoon brothers should have plenty of help next season. Aric Holman was the team's leading rebounder while freshman Abdul Ado averaged 7.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

Then there's arguably the team's most talented player - point guard Lamar Peters. The sophomore recovered from a terrible start to average 9.6 points and nearly five assists per game. He averaged more than eight assists per game during four games in the NIT.

"We're all still young, we're all still learning," Holman said. "Basically we're doing all this together. We're making mistakes and progressing as a team."

The optimism surrounding the program is a welcome change after several subpar seasons. Mississippi State played in the Final Four in 1996 and had several solid seasons under former coach Rick Stansbury before he briefly retired in 2012.

But the program cratered under former coach Rick Ray, who had a 37-60 record over three seasons. He was fired in 2015 and Mississippi State turned to Howland - who took UCLA to two Final Fours - in the hopes the veteran coach could push the Bulldogs back to relevance in the SEC.

It took Howland a few seasons to rebuild the roster, but the past season was an encouraging step in that direction.

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Updated March 28, 2018

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