In SEC basketball country, the Kentucky Wildcats are as close as it gets to a comic book supervillain — or superhero if you’re from Lexington, but for the purposes of our analogy, let’s stick with the villain.
Ever since the school hired John Calipari to lead the program ahead of the 2009-10 season, Kentucky has been one of the few constants atop the conference. The Wildcats have never finished2 worse than the third-best record in the league during that seven-year span and have won both the regular season title and the conference tournament championship four times. They seemingly have drawn the ire of opposing fans because their success is accompanied by the confidence of knowing just how good they are.
But, every supervillain needs a superhero.
The SEC has lacked a consistent challenger to the Wildcats during Calipari’s tenure. Florida, who has won the regular season title three times in that stretch, has come the closest, but the Gators are now without former head coach Billy Donovan and still searching to find their new identity under Michael White. Texas A&M and Vanderbilt have had their flashes of success, too, but now there may be a blooming Batman in town.
The first step to becoming a superhero is looking the part; cape and all. In college basketball, there’s no better place to start than the head coach.
In March 2015, Mississippi State put Starkville back on the college basketball map by hiring former UCLA head coach Ben Howland to a four-year deal worth $8.2 million. Howland highlighted the strength of the conference in explaining why he accepted the job and his history of success suggests that he could turn the Bulldogs into an SEC challenger down the line.
The now 59-year old has taken three different teams — Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh, and UCLA — to the NCAA Tournament, highlighted by the Bruins’ three-year run of Final Fours from 2006 to 2008. During his time in Los Angeles, he also took home a trio of Pac-12 regular season championships. From small school to blue blood, Howland has the on-court track record that indicates he could build something unique in Starkville.
With a previously successful head coach in the fold, the Bulldogs will need to build out a talented roster capable of competing with Kentucky’s yearly cadre of five-star prospects. Consider this the next step in filling out the superhero’s costume.
Less than a month after joining the staff, the new head coach landed a five-star recruit of his own. Malik Newman, a home-grown high school stud, committed to play his college ball for the program, but ultimately left after just one season citing uncertainty regarding his role on Howland’s roster.
While Newman was the highlight of Mississippi State’s 2015 recruiting class, he was not the only prospect to land in Starkville. Two four-stars and a three-star combined with Newman to give Howland the 22nd ranked class that season, according to 247Sports. With Newman off to Kansas, Howland retooled the roster by landing a top-10 class in 2016, including four top 100 prospects to go along with the returning sophomores from the year before.
Those youngsters won’t be ready to compete with Kentucky this season — the Wildcats are simply too loaded and the Bulldogs lack the necessary experience to overcome their talent deficit — but there are growing signs that Howland is onto something in Starkville.
He’s landed back-to-back top-25 classes and he’s already received a commitment from the No. 27 prospect in the class of 2017, Nick Weatherspoon. If Howland can turn that talent into a cohesive unit on the court, then maybe there will finally be a consistent challenger to the Wildcats’ dominance in the SEC.
The first step, though, is putting on the cape.