Ben Howland has made Mississippi State basketball immediately relevant. The former UCLA head coach received a commitment on Friday from Malik Newman — the number one shooting guard in the Class of 2015 — and has reinvigorated the Bulldogs’ program before he’s ever coached a game in Starkville. CBS Sports Network and CBSSports.com’s Jon Rothstein sat down with Howland on Friday night to discuss Newman, Mississippi State, and what’s different about Howland now versus his final year in Westwood.
Jon Rothstein, CBSSports.com: It’s only been 33 days since you were hired as the head coach of Mississippi State and already there’s a massive buzz surrounding your program. Are you even a little surprised at where things are at considering you’ve only been on the job a little over a month?
Ben Howland: I’m really excited obviously with the signing of Malik Newman — that’s a huge signing for our program. He’s the highest ranked player in the history of the program to sign and then come play in Starkville. Monta Ellis signed, but never ended up there because you could turn pro back then out of high school. That would be probably be the same case with Malik, but the rules are such that we get to have him for a year and we’re very grateful to have him. He’s just a great kid and comes from a great family. His father played at Mississippi State and there was just a great love for the program. George Brooks — my assistant that I retained — did a great job of recruiting him for three years and deserves a lot of credit. It was the fan base too, though. Everywhere in town — the people were all over him to come — and we were able to land him. We’ve got a good group of kids and we’ve got a veteran laden team and Malik should fit in very nicely with them. Now we’ve got to try and land some more kids so that we’re very competitive.
CBSSports.com: Take us inside the conversations you had with Malik — how did you make up so much ground in such a short period of time with a player that was in such high demand?
Howland: I think the opportunity for him to come here and play point guard and focus on that position was big for him. We have a kid here — I.J. Ready — that he’ll battle with every day and we’ll play them together some and that will be good for us. I’ve often played two point guards together. He’s going to be a point guard in the NBA and that’s what my focus is. I’ve had a number of kids in the NBA that I’ve coached and a number of other great players that I’ve coached. My first year in coaching I coached John Stockton and as an assistant at Santa Barbara I coached Brian Shaw. I coached Brandin Knight at Pitt, who was unbelievable and also Carl Krauser. And then all of those good point guard that we had at UCLA — Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, and Larry Drew — so I had a good track record. Our point guard gets the ball a lot. It’s a good system if you’re a point guard. You’re going to get the ball and you’re going to make a lot of decisions. You’re going to make plays for others and make plays for yourself. That’s why he’s going to be so good — he’s going to be really good at end of possessions. He’s a point guard who can make plays — that’s his strength. Hopefully he’ll become a better defender and also really work on some of the other details with his shot. We really just want to help him improve in any way we can.
CBSSports.com: You’ve mentioned that you coached many elite perimeter players that wound up in the NBA when you were at UCLA. How does Malik Newman compare to some of those guys as a player?
Howland: He’s definitely an NBA player. He’s got a really bright future beyond the college level. He’ll be an excellent NBA player. We want to get him to the point where we can have our team have a great season and we can help him have a great year. Collectively we need to go a great job for everyone.
CBSSports.com: We spoke after you got the job and you were excited about the team you inherited because it was veteran players. How in your mind does Malik add to that dynamic?
Howland: All those kids are happy. If you talked to Craig Sword or Gavin Ware or Travis Daniels or Fred Thomas, they’re all excited because they know they’re going to play with another great player. I think Malik can really help them all blossom. To have a guy with the ball who can make plays like that, it makes everybody better and it helps our depth. I.J. Ready is going to be an important player for us this year. I also think Demetrius Houston is going to be a very important player for us too. We’re still obviously hoping to pick up some other players and we’ll see what happens there, but I already feel like with the addition of Malik that we became a lot better as a team immediately.
CBSSports.com: You said at your opening press conference that the Final Four was the goal for your program since Mississippi State had reached that point in 1996. For this specific team next season, what do you think is a fair goal just by looking at the pieces you now have in place?
Howland: I’d like to get on the floor first with everybody before I answer that, but I think we can be a team that can be very competitive with everybody we play night in and night out. It all depends on how hard we work and what we do from here on out. We just had our last workout Thursday. We come back and get to work as a group on June 4th and that will be the beginning of our year. Ask me that question again in the beginning of August and I’ll be able to answer it better.
CBSSports.com: Your program made major waves by landing Malik Newman, but we’ve seen several programs in the SEC flourish in recruiting over the last 12 months. Do you feel like the league is going through a change perception wise compared to the way it was when you were coaching in both the Pac-12 and the Big East?
Howland: I always had great respect for the SEC with all the great players. The perception is fine — Kentucky has been to the Final Four four out of the last five years and Florida has had an unbelievable run with Billy Donovan. Arkansas had a great run this past year and Mike Anderson is doing a great job there. Kevin Stallings has been a picture of consistency at Vanderbilt. There’s been a lot of good teams. I think the league has been good, I just think it’s going to get better.
CBSSports.com: You spent two years away from coaching after 14 seasons at the highest level at both UCLA and Pitt. What was the biggest thing you missed?
Howland: Just being out the floor and helping kids get better and the relationships with the kids. I really felt bad doing games on television this past year because I missed that and I was around every week. I also got a chance to go to the practices on the road this past year and that got me a taste of it again. I’m looking forward to getting back and working with the kids — they keep you young. That’s what you miss. I also miss being around some of the other coaches — the competitiveness of recruiting. Recruiting is crazy these days and it keeps getting crazier.
CBSSports.com: What’s the biggest difference in Ben Howland now versus your last game at UCLA?
Howland: I’m just so excited to have a new beginning at a place that’s really a special place where they love basketball. People in Starkville are just really amped up about what’s going on right now.