STARKVILLE — Wanted to see them play in their home gymnasium.
The day before covering last week’s Alabama-Mississippi State game in Starkville, I went to watch the Bulldogs play their 2015-16 season opener in men’s basketball under new head coach Ben Howland.
Well, let me clarify that.
I went to go check out G.W. Carver High graduates Craig Sword, Demetrius Houston and Joe Strugg as all three are at Mississippi State. Sword is a senior guard and top returning scorer, Houston is a sophomore forward and Strugg is a freshman forward.
Only two played in last Friday night’s 106-88 win over Eastern Washington at Humphrey Coliseum.
Strugg is recovering from foot surgery so the Bulldogs are waiting to see how his foot heels before determining if they’re going to redshirt the 6-foot, 9-inch forward. So he was in Mississippi State gear with several other Bulldogs who didn’t dress for the game.
The Bulldogs had three Carver graduates last season in Sword, Houston and forward Roquez Johnson, who was a senior. Johnson moved on, Strugg moved in, but it’s uncertain whether Strugg will play season.
With Strugg watching them from the bench, Sword scored nine points and Houston had just two in six minutes of play. The Bulldogs followed with a 76-72 upset home loss Monday against Southern in which Sword scored 16 points before fouling out. Houston didn’t play Monday as he’s been suspended indefinitely due to “conduct detrimental to the team.”
Houston didn’t make the trip to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off as the Bulldogs open tournament play Thursday against Miami at 4 p.m. on ESPN2. So Sword will be the only Carver grad seeing action in San Juan.
Sword averaged 11.3 points last season, 14.4 in SEC play, but Bulldogs endured a third straight losing season in 2014-15. Sword is an 1,000-point scorer, earned second-team All-SEC honors last season, but Mississippi State has won a total of just 37 games in his three seasons there.
The 6-foot, 3-inch guard wants to end his college career on a much higher note.
“To win an SEC championship and make the (NCAA Tournament),” said Sword last week when asked what his team and individual aspirations this season.
Those are extremely lofty goals for a program that’s struggled in recent years, but Sword’s new coach reached the national title game and the Final Four three consecutive seasons. Replacing Rick Ray, Howland came into this season with a 401-206 record as he led three schools to the NCAAs in Northern Arizona, Pitt and UCLA.
“It’s been great,” said Sword when asked about playing for Howland.
Howland landed McDonald’s All-American shooting guard Malik Newman, but is leaning on his experienced players like Sword to lead the Bulldogs in his first season in Starkville.
“The seniors, led by Craig Sword and Gavin Ware and Travis Daniels and Fred Thomas, are really the key for our team,” Howland said last week.
Sword has always been an intriguing player to watch. He’s explosive, athletic, but you only really see that in transition. He tends to stand on the perimeter as was the case last week. He’s shot under 45 percent from the field and under 30 percent from 3-point range for his career so the closer he can get to the rim, the better, but Sword mostly does that just in transition.
Houston, to me, has the most upside of the three Carver grads at Mississippi State, but the 6-foot, 7-inch forward set more screens than anything last week. Had me puzzled as to what his role is.
“Demetrius is playing a lot of spots,” Sword said. “They just trying to figure out where they’re going to put him at permanently.”
OK. So Houston doesn’t have a role yet and getting suspended isn’t helping matters.
Houston could be a key contributor off the bench. Last season, Houston averaged just 3.1 points in 29 games, but should average close to 10 points and take stabs at guarding some of the SEC’s best perimeter players because he’s long and athletic.
As for Strugg, he probably needs to redshirt. Just not strong enough right now to compete in the paint for Mississippi State. So Mississippi State should have Ware beat on him practice and toughen him up for next season. Hit the weight room, too.
Now I’ll watch them from afar until say February 20 when Mississippi State plays at Alabama. Looking forward to seeing if Sword is more active in the half court, if Houston is contributing and if Strugg is actually playing.