As Mississippi State’s Ben Howland and Liberty’s Ritchie McKay prepare to face each other in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, it’s the rubber match of a 5-game series that’s been 21 years in the making.
Their head coaching careers combine to span 40 college basketball seasons, but very early in those careers, Howland and McKay were the head men of Big Sky rivals, Northern Arizona and Portland State, respectively.
Their teams played four times in the two seasons they shared the same conference, each splitting the regular season series in 1996-97 and 1997-98. It was Howland’s third and fourth season as a head coach and the first two for McKay.
The then 40-year Howland was beginning to hit his stride with the Lumberjacks as those two seasons were the first two of a three year stretch with 21 wins, both years advancing to the NIT or NCAA Tournament before he accepted the job at Pittsburgh in 1999.
McKay, who was in his early 30s then, was resurrecting a previously dormant Vikings’ program before he quickly jumped to Colorado State following the two seasons in the Big Sky.
The two coaches took very different paths from there with Howland excelling at Pitt and then going to three straight Final Fours while at UCLA. McKay would bounce from CSU to Oregon State then New Mexico before landing at Liberty in 2007. He then spent 6 years as an assistant at Virginia before returning to the Flames in 2015.
“I’ve seen his style change,” McKay said of Howland over the years. “When you’re in this profession, if you’re not constantly learning or keeping up with the necessity of change, you won’t be in it long. He’s adapted really well.”
After getting fired from UCLA in 2013, Howland spent two seasons as a TV analyst for NBC Sports Network and Fox. He’s now in his fourth season as head coach of the Bulldogs, taking MSU to its first NCAA Tournament in a decade.
“I know for me, the respite between the first stop at Liberty and this one was really beneficial for me,” McKay explained. “After he left UCLA and kind of getting recharged doing games (on TV), I think he got a chance to step back and look at some of the things that some of the elite coaches were doing, and he’s added to his weaponry. He’s a terrific coach.”
As has been discussed previously, McKay certainly added to his weaponry during his time away from being a head coach as well. Taking the Flames from one of the worst Division I programs in the country to a top 50 team with 28 wins. He’s built the program this time on the packline principles adapted from Dick and Tony Bennett.
Mississippi State is the 5-seed from the powerful SEC where the Flames come in as a trendy upset pick. The Bulldogs have length and athleticism while the Flames rely on solid defense and one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
“I just think he’s taken the program that he inherited, and they have a winning mindset (now),” McKay said of Howland. “Defensively, they can create some havoc with their athleticism and their length, but I also think he’s given his group some offensive freedom that will be difficult to stop. When you put together the freedom with the talent that he’s got, they make for a long night of preparation.”
Both men have taken different paths to where they are today, but as their roads intersect again, they do so on the game’s ultimate stage – the NCAA Tournament.