February 23, 2016

There's no surprise that Mississippi State's surge in Southeastern Conference play is being led by a freshman.

It's just not the freshman that most expected.

Quinndary Weatherspoon - a relatively unheralded 6-foot-4 guard - has been invaluable for the Bulldogs over the past two months with his versatility, scoring nearly 15 points per game in conference play while playing four different positions on the floor.

It's a huge reason Mississippi State (12-14, 5-9 SEC) has won five of its past nine games and knocked off two straight teams - Alabama and Vanderbilt - that still harbor hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.

Mississippi State travels to face No. 21 Texas A&M (20-7, 9-5 SEC) on Wednesday.

Barring a miracle run through the SEC Tournament next month, the Bulldogs won't be playing in the Big Dance. But their rapid improvement - led by Weatherspoon - has given the program some much needed hope in coach Ben Howland's first season.

Howland said Weatherspoon is a worthy leading man.

''He's earned it,'' Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. ''He's put the time in. He gets in there extra on his own at night, late at night in the practice gym, and gets up shots.''

Weatherspoon's emergence has overshadowed the performance of guard Malik Newman, the Bulldogs' other freshman who was one of the nation's top recruits and expected to have an instant impact.

Newman's had some good moments - averaging more than 12 points per game - but he's faded in conference play and has dealt with numerous nagging injuries, most recently with his back.

Weatherspoon just keeps getting stronger.

A couple of highlight-reel plays over the past week have helped the rest of the SEC learn about him in a hurry. His last-second 3-pointer from the corner lifted Mississippi State over Vanderbilt for a victory and then a few days a later he soared down the lane over Alabama defender Riley Norris for a huge dunk.

It's that combination of shooting skill and athleticism that have made him tough for SEC opponents to handle. He was named the SEC's co-freshman of the week - along with Texas A&M Tyler Davis - on Monday.

''We got back-to-back wins in the SEC and that is what I am most excited about,'' Weatherspoon said. ''The awards that I have won, I credit my teammates for those because they put me in a position to win them.''

Howland said Weatherspoon's intelligence and intensity have helped make him a quick success. He's not just scoring a lot of points - he's second on the team in SEC play in rebounding, first in steals and third in blocks.

He's played everything from point guard to power forward on offense and can guard four different positions on the court. Even more importantly, he does all of it well.

''Not many freshmen have that kind of capability and I think it says a lot about how smart he is and how skilled he is and how tough he is,'' Howland said. ''That's what I love most about him.''

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

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