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Freshman Iverson Molinar will be counted on to provide depth at point guard for the Bulldogs.

STARKVILLE Mississippi State’s men’s basketball program has shown gradual improvement each season with Ben Howland at the helm.

Tonight, they’ll begin to take the next step.

The Bulldogs went 14-17 in Howland’s first year, 2015-16, and broke even the next at 16-16. His third year saw MSU finish with its first winning season since 2011-12 with a 25-12 record and a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.

Last year, though, was a breakthrough season with the Bulldogs finishing 23-11 and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade.

“After being out for 10 years, it was a great accomplishment to get the program back into the NCAA Tournament,” Howland said. “So the next big achievement for us as a program is to get back into the tournament and win in the tournament.”

State was upset as a No. 5 seed in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament by Liberty, which used a late scoring surge for an 80-76 victory.

“We have a nasty taste in our mouths from the loss against Liberty,” said MSU forward Robert Woodard II. “We’re very eager to make our way back and go a whole lot further than what we did last year.”

The Bulldogs will get their first opportunity to start building their resume for this year’s Big Dance as they open the season at home against Florida International tonight at 7.

The Panthers are coming off a 20-14 season in which they reached the second round of the Collegeinsider.com Tournament. Redshirt senior forward Devon Andrews is FIU’s top returning scorer and a Preseason All-Conference USA selection after averaging 15.3 points per game last season.

“They’re a very difficult team to play,” Howland said. “Last year, they were No. 1 in the country in pace. They played faster than anybody in the United States of America. They force a lot of turnovers with their style of play. They press for 40 minutes and concentrate on putting pressure on the ball.”

FIU’s style of play could pose a problem for the Bulldogs, who will be without their starting point guard Nick Weatherspoon for the first 10 games of the season due to an NCAA mandated suspension.

Senior Tyson Carter and freshmen D.J. Stewart and Iverson Molinar will handle the point guard duties until Weatherspoon returns to the court on Dec. 22.

“We don’t have a lot of experience,” Howland said. “Two of those three are freshmen and this is their first college game coming up. That’s why the scrimmage against TCU and the exhibition against South Alabama were good to get some experience playing against other people.

“There’s no question we’ll miss Nick. He’s one of our most experienced players in the program and has been a two-year starter. It’s tough to not have him with us for the first 10 games.”

Mississippi State is 2-0 all-time against FIU, winning the last meeting 58-51 in the 1992 San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico.

logan.lowery@journalinc.com

Twitter: @loganlowery

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