Rogelio V. Solis
March 24, 2015

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Ben Howland's coaching career has made the unlikely trek from Westwood to Starkville, with a TV timeout in between.

The 57-year-old was introduced as Mississippi State's new men's basketball coach Tuesday afternoon on the floor at Humphrey Coliseum. The former UCLA coach - who led the Bruins to three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008 - takes over a program with only a fraction of the national prestige, though the Bulldogs did make their one and only Final Four appearance in 1996.

''That is our goal,'' Howland said. ''To get back there again.''

Several hundred fans rang their cowbells in celebration when Howland was introduced, hoping for a quick revival for a program that has fallen to an afterthought in the Southeastern Conference.

Howland replaces Rick Ray, who was fired on Saturday after a 37-60 record over three seasons, including a 15-44 mark against SEC competition.

The coaching search that led to Howland barely lasted two days. Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said he had phone conversations with Howland on Saturday night and Sunday, and then the two met in Atlanta on Monday to finalize a deal.

Stricklin said Howland has a four-year contract that will pay an average of $2.05 million annually. The four-year deal is the longest allowed by state law in Mississippi.

Howland ''was hungry, and ready to get back into coaching,'' Stricklin said. ''I was really surprised he was still on the market and I wanted to take advantage of that.''

Howland will inherit a veteran team, including starters Craig Sword, Fred Thomas, I.J. Ready and Gavin Ware. But the group hasn't had much success together - the Bulldogs had a 13-19 record last season, including a 6-12 mark in the SEC.

Howland, a Santa Barbara, California, native, has won every where he's been during a 19-year career at the Division I level. He led Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh to the NCAA Tournament before taking over at UCLA.

He had plenty of success in Westwood and also recruited high-caliber players, including current NBA stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.

But Howland's last few years with the Bruins were often overshadowed by unwanted headlines.

The NCAA investigated the recruitment of Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, with Muhammad eventually being suspended three games. There was also a critical Sports Illustrated report in 2012 suggesting that Howland had lost control of the team. He was fired in 2013 despite winning the Pac-12 and has spent the past two years as a television analyst.

''There's no question we made a couple mistakes there at UCLA at the very end,'' Howland said. ''One thing I've always prided myself on is understanding that to have success you have to have high-character kids.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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