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March 21, 2019

Ben Howland

San Jose, California

MODERATOR: We welcome coach Ben Howland to the dais. We'll have him do an opening statement, and then we'll open it up for questions. Coach, we'll give you the floor.

BEN HOWLAND: Thank you. Excited to be here. Really excited for our team to be in the tournament, and playing a great team in Liberty tomorrow, who is very well coached. We've got our work cut out for us, but we're thrilled to be here and looking forward to tomorrow.

MODERATOR: Great. Ben, just with all your experience in this tournament, how do you kind of relay that to the players that have never been on this stage before? What do you talk to them about, about what to expect for tomorrow?

BEN HOWLAND: I wouldn't say we approach it any differently than normal. The only difference is it's either be successful or go home and the year is over. They all understand that. But in terms of our preparation and everything we do for this game, we've had a little more time now because it's a Friday game and we were knocked out a week ago.

So, yeah, but they're excited. I think the kids are excited. We're watching all these other games going on today right now. And so, you know, it's fun.

Q. What's it like for these seniors, do you think, from where they came in to now being in the NCAA Tournament their last year?
BEN HOWLAND: That's a great question because it's really important to me, you know, for them to have experienced this in their college career is really gratifying. From where we started to, you know, last year, having a good year and getting to the NIT finals in New York a year ago and taking that momentum into the offseason.

But Q, Aric and I all entered together at the same time. Aric was our first recruit that we signed. Q had signed and we re-recruited him, and we were very fortunate to have them both. And to watch them grow and improve and what they've done to lead and help this program is just really special.

So I'm very happy for them and very proud of them and love those kids very much. They've been great, and really, it's been 10 years since Mississippi State has been in the NCAA Tournament. So this is a big deal for us, and they're a huge reason why we're back in this tournament.

Q. Ben, what have all of you been able to learn about Liberty over the last few days since Sunday?
BEN HOWLAND: Well, they're 11th in the country in field goal efficiency -- offensive efficiency, I should say. 56 percent, 44 percent of their shots are threes. They shoot a very high percentage. They take care of the basketball. So they're very good offensively and they're very good defensively.

Ritchie and I have known each other for 30-plus years. I have great respect for him as a coach. It's well documented, you know, his having worked with Tony Bennett and the friendship with the Bennett family and how he's really incorporated that pack-line defense that they're so well known for to what they're doing at Liberty defensively. So they're very solid at both ends. They've got an older team, an experienced team.

Their front line is very good, and they've got great guard play and they can all shoot it. So they space the floor, and they're -- that's why they're here and why they're a very good seed, especially when you consider it's typically a one-bid league. So we know we've got a good challenge.

Q. It's been about a decade since your amazing run of Final Fours at UCLA. I just wonder if your perspective has changed since then. It's been a while since you've just been in the tournament.
BEN HOWLAND: Yeah, no, it's great to be back in the tournament, personally, and really excited. I have good memories of being here in San Jose in '07 we were here when I was the coach at UCLA. So I'm really excited personally and thrilled to be back in the tournament as a coach.

Q. Did Nick Weatherspoon make the trip with you guys or any update with him?
BEN HOWLAND: No. His status remains the same and he did not make the trip.

Q. Coach, just wondering, you alluded to the pack-line defense. What kind of challenges does that present and just Liberty's way of running it, I guess, is there anything different than what Virginia does than what you've seen?
BEN HOWLAND: They do a lot of the same things defensively. You know, it's just very much a helping defense where they're constantly helping each other. They'll switch a lot, a lot of handoffs, a lot of screens. They hard hedge very aggressively in the middle of the floor with their big. And they really play together, and it's really a unit.

It's the great example of team defense playing as one. And so it presents -- you know, you've gotta be willing to be patient and move the ball side to side to be able to get good shots against that defense. They don't make -- they don't beat themselves. They're not going to make mistakes.

Q. Ben, with having just three guards, essentially, how do you manage those minutes in a tournament format where you're worried about their legs staying fresh game after game?
BEN HOWLAND: Hey, we're just worried about tomorrow (laughs). So, you know, and really we're playing Robert in small forward. So he's our fourth guard. So we're playing four guards in those three positions. And now it's survive and advance is the stage of the year we're in now.

Q. I apologize if this has already been asked, but we were just in the locker room talking to some of the guys. Obviously people like to pick upsets in March Madness. A lot of people pegged this one as the 12-5. Have you talked to the team about, you know, a lot of people are against you? Have you talked to the guys about that, and what have you said about that?
BEN HOWLAND: No. You know, bottom line is we sat there and watched the unveiling of the tournament on Sunday together, and right after, you know, they announced who we were playing, Seth Davis, I mean it was like, boom, he said it right away, you know, made my job really easy. So that's kind of -- and our guys, it got their attention like right away. I mean, first thing, right out of his mouth is boom, that's an upset special. I'm choosing Liberty.

He wears his hat a lot. Just so you all know, he is from Mississippi, but that San Francisco Giant hat is on all the time in Starkville. I see it all the time.

Q. Coach, I was asking Q, Lamar, the leaders on your team, how do you lead when you've never been somewhere? So for you, you've been here many times to the NCAA Tournament. What's the lesson you want to tell them that this is how you lead through this kind of situation?
BEN HOWLAND: You know, at this point, I mean, our guys are experienced. I mean, they've gone through a lot this year, put in a lot of time, and we approach this game how we're approaching every game. And the sense of urgency, that's the highest you can have now, because, again, if you don't win, you're going home, season's over.

But, you know, really nothing changes in terms of how we're preparing and what we're doing and the focus and concentration we put in for each and every game that we play. And our guys have done a very good job.

Q. We were just talking to Q in the locker room like you said, and he said that a good compilation for Liberty might be Wright State, and you guys struggled to score in that game in Jackson. Is that a fair comparison, and what's the level of concern against a team that's as good defensively as Liberty is?
BEN HOWLAND: Yeah, and I actually brought that analogy up to the team when we met, because when you go back -- we were preparing when they were getting ready to play them, and they were very patient offensively, really spread us out. Really did a great job of moving the ball and hitting threes, and they were very good defensively. Ended up losing in their conference finals to Northern Kentucky, a really good team.

And so that's a similar style that we saw in that game. I don't think they always played that way, but I know they did in that game. But they were good. And we were fortunate to win that game.

Q. You and Coach McKay coached against each other, of course, back in the '90s. What do you remember about any of those matchups that you all had against each other or just any staples of Coach McKay's teams that you still kind of see today?
BEN HOWLAND: Well, he's been a very good coach, you know, for his entire career. I mean, he really studies the game and is an outstanding teacher. And those teams he had at Portland State were very disciplined and played well at both ends of the floor. You know, he was I think only there two years before he moved onto his next opportunity, which I believe was Colorado State.

But he's an outstanding teacher, an outstanding person. I think he's a very good leader and great for kids, you know, so I have, like I said, great respect for Ritchie and his history and knowing him so long. You know, so this is -- yeah, the old Big Sky days coming back.

Q. With Q and Aric, those are two guys, the last two guys in your initial recruiting class, is there a sense of pride in seeing those guys pay off and get to the NCAA Tournament in their last year?
BEN HOWLAND: There's a big sense of pride being very grateful and thankful, because they deserve it. That was something we really had our heart and focus set on going into this season as we ended last year, and we talked about it in the spring and the summer.

It was constant that this is, you know -- our goal is to get this program and our team back into the NCAA Tournament. And really happy for them because there's a great sense of accomplishment of doing that. And now the opportunity to try to survive and advance is what everybody's dream is as you get into this tournament.

And like I've said before, it's the greatest sporting event in all of American sport. There's so much interest. There's so much love for this time of year. And everybody in the country is watching as these games are being played. It's really, really phenomenal time.

MODERATOR: All right. Thanks, Coach.

BEN HOWLAND: Thank you.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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