I will preface this preview: While Mississippi State is slated to finish in 14th place, I would be surprised if they finish last in the SEC. There are rosters that I like a lot less than this one, and while not the biggest fan of coach Chris Jans, I was a bit surprised to see picks slot the Bulldogs here.
Now, on to the show.
Mississippi State was good under Ben Howland for the last seven seasons. He recruited reasonably well but never landed a player who would help the Bulldogs become great. And in that time, State landed just one NCAA tournament bid: a five-seed in 2019. Yet that squad, which finished just 10-8 in conference play, was bounced by Liberty in the first round.
Outside of that campaign, MSU drifted between 45th and 80th in KenPom’s ratings and went .500 against SEC opponents. Given the program’s location and resources, that’s nothing to complain about. And we’ve seen what happens when the administration gets the hire wrong.
Still, it seemed as if Howland had bumped up against his ceiling, and given the returns, going in a new direction wasn’t the worst decision.
If my picks are correct, that new direction might be slightly bumpy at the outset.
#14 Mississippi State Bulldogs
Last Season: 18 - 16 (8-10 in conference) No. 49 KenPom
My Prediction: 13 - 16 (5-13, 14th in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 6.3 - 11.7 (11th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 10th in conference
KenPom Projection: 16 - 13 (8-10 in conference) No. 53
HEAD COACH: Chris Jans | 1st Season, 0-0
With Howland sailing off into the sunset, State set out to bring in a coach who could breathe some life into the program where the air had become recycled and stale. It tasked Jans, who has a bit of a checkered past, with freshening it up.
An Iowa native, Jans jumped into coaching after his playing career wrapped up in 1991. For 13 years, he worked his way around the JUCO circuit as an assistant and head coach. Then, in 2004, Porter Moser hired Jans to his staff at Illinois State, which led to a position with Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. That timing was perfect, coming right as the Shockers jumped from a quality Missouri Valley Conference program to a Final Four appearance.
And in 2014, Bowling Green hired Jans. While Jans quickly turned around the Falcons, he was dismissed after a video surfaced of him being inappropriate with a woman while he was intoxicated at a local bar. To Jans’ credit, he didn’t run from or try to cover up his behavior, vowed to change, and has been scandal-free since.
But there’s no doubt it disrupted his progress up the coaching ladder. He returned to Wichita State as a special assistant to Marshall and bided his time. In 2017, New Mexico State gave him a second chance at a program practically entrenched atop the WAC.
Jans’ adaptability and keen eye in the junior college and transfer market paid off. The Aggies won 79 percent of their games under his direction and made three NCAA tournament trips. This past March, they upset fifth-seeded UConn in the first round — a result that firmly plotted Jans on the radar of athletic directors.
And the traits that helped him thrive at Bowling Green and NMSU are what’s needed in Starkville.
Seat Temp: FRESH
Howland arrived to find the program a complete disaster, reeling from Rick Stansbury’s exit and Rick Ray’s struggle to build an SEC-caliber roster. No, Howland didn’t match his handiwork at Pitt or UCLA. But at the very least, he ran a competent operation that got the Bulldogs back to the middle of the conference’s pecking order. Howland never finished worse than 6-12 in the standings, a bar that shouldn’t be too hard for Jans to clear.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
IVERSON MOLINAR!!! That’s who’s missing.
Over the past couple of seasons, Molinar felt like a tightly held secret. Few players impacted their team more and received such little public praise. Molinar displayed remarkable consistency and efficiency, even as his usage and minutes increased. That’s not normal. He posted a 110.5 offensive rating while playing 38.4 minutes as a freshman. By the time he was a junior, he logged almost 84.4 percent of minutes at his position and had a 26.7 percent usage rate—and still posted a 110.7 offensive rating. It hardly mattered if Howland heaped minutes and possessions onto him. Molinar delivered.
State imported Garrison Brooks, a former ACC Player of the Year, to shore up the interior. For the most part, he delivered. Brooks, whose father was an assistant coach, averaged 10.4 points and 6.6 rebounds, easing some of the workloads on fellow big, Tolu Smith.
Andersson Garcia’s decision to transfer out is a clear loss, taking a plus-defender who was finding his footing on the offensive end. Rocket Watts, a former top-50 recruit, didn’t reboot his career after transferring from Michigan State. Instead, his minutes dwindled, and he decamped this offseason for Oakland. Javian Davis served his purpose as a rotational big. Cam Carter, who could never entirely shed his role as a reserve, sought out a primary role in the transfer portal. Derek Fountain, an intriguing combo forward, never broke through in a lineup that remained staunchly committed to a twin-post look. Now, he’s moved on to LSU. Alden Applewhite barely saw the floor but was a highly regarded recruit.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
Tolu Smith | SENIOR | POST
One reason the Bulldogs struggled to match preseason expectations was Smith’s absence. The Bulldogs’ best threat inside missed a dozen games, and when healthy, was in and out of the lineup, creating problems with cohesion. In addition, it left Howland trying to blend transfers around Molinar and the not-always-available Smith.
When Smith is at full strength, he’s a throwback option in the post. He’s hyper-efficient on post-ups and a sturdy rebounder, all while providing reliable defense on the interior. Last season, he raised his scoring average to 14.2 points per game and was a crucial cog in Howland’s offensive approach. It’ll be interesting to see how he meshes with Jans’ vision, though Jans has shown that he’s flexible enough to maximize Smith’s skillset.
DJ Jeffries arrived after two seasons at Memphis and provided sound perimeter defense. Still, his outside shooting stroke didn’t translate with increased volume. That’s the linchpin for Jeffries to become the 3-and-D threat Howland was looking for in the transfer portal. Cam Matthews soaked up minutes but left a modest imprint on the stat sheet with an 11.4 percent usage rate.
Three walk-ons return, but Keyshawn Murphy might be a player worth keeping an eye on. A former top-150 prospect with great positional size as a bit of a stretch four. He battled injuries all last year and took a redshirt, but he’s talented.
Shakeel Moore | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD
A heralded transfer from NC State, Moore searched for stability and consistency while playing a secondary creator alongside Molinar. Moore is shifty and looks to score more than he does to distribute, but he is a guy who needs to knock down perimeter looks reliably. Defensively, he can be a menace in passing lanes. If MSU is going to step up this season, it’ll be partly powered by Moore taking a step forward and being better on the ball.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|FR||Shawn Jones, Jr.||6'5||190||★★★||267||WING|
|SR||Dashawn Davis||6'2||190||TRANSFER||Oregon State||PG|
|R-SR||Will McNair, Jr.||6'11||265||TRANSFER||New Mexico St||POST|
|G-SR||Tyler Stevenson||6'8||215||TRANSFER||Southern Miss||CF|
|G-SR||Eric Reed, Jr.||6'1||195||TRANSFER||Southeast Missouri||PG|
As for the rest of the roster, it’s a mish-mash of newcomers.
Kimani Hamilton, a 3-star signee, stuck with State and brings quality athleticism, potential three-level scoring, and an improving jump shot. Shawn Jones Jr. is a journeyman as a recruit, committing to Texas State before signing with Texas Southern, only snatching the last scholarship in Starkville. Jones is a high-level athlete whose skill set needs significant sculpting. It’s been reported that he’s walking on to the roster.
Martavious Russell is another player committed to the previous staff and stuck with Jans. He’s a high-scoring shooting guard, and while not ranked in the 247Sports composite, is a 3-star prospect with an 86 rating from that service.
To bolster the roster, Jans filled the last spots with experienced transfers. Dashawn Davis is a JUCO guard who spent one year at Oregon State, where he averaged 10.3 points, finished with a 99.6 offensive rating, and shot just 18.8 percent from deep. He’s joined by one of Jans’ recruits from New Mexico State in Will McNair, a likely reserve and big who is relatively stationary.
Southern Miss transfer Tyler Stevenson might add some scoring punch as an undersized four around the basket. Eric Reed, Jr. led Southeast Missouri State on the perimeter at 16 points per game. However, neither goes about it in a very efficient way. Meanwhile, there’s Jameel Horton, a combo guard from Albany who put up almost 13 points a night. Ideally, he’ll serve as a suitable backup for Moore.
|(1) Point Guard||Shakeel Moore||Eric Reed, Jr.||Martavious Russell|
|(2) Combo Guard||Dashawn Davis||Jameel Horton||Shawn Jones, Jr.|
|(3) Wing||DJ Jeffries||Cameron Matthews||Kamani Hamilton|
|(4) Combo Forward||Tyler Stevenson||Keyshawn Murphy|
|(5) Post||Tolu Smith||Will McNair, Jr.|
The mix of holdovers and newcomers is an odd collection of talent but not uncommon for a coach in Jans’ spot. You keep the best players the last staff landed and try to fill in the cracks while your assistants begin recruiting talent that matches your system.
That said, it was a struggle to sketch out a depth chart. Keeping Smith, Moore and Jeffries in the fold was an obvious win, but from there, it gets...interesting. Davis and Stevenson might add some pop, and maybe Murphy helps at the four. Getting anything from Cam Matthews would also shore up the wing position.
But if we’re realistic, this roster has some bare patches. Jans’ transfer class ranked 65th nationally, per evanmiya.com. And there’s no instant impact freshmen in sight, either. Jans is a chef who can conjure up a reasonable recipe with the ingredients in his starting five, but the bench unit might be lacking enough quality to make a noticeable impression in his first season.
My Projected Record: 13-16 | KenPom Projected Record: 16-13
|Nov 7||Home||Texas A&M Corpus-Christi||214||W|
|Nov 13||Home||Arkansas Pine-Bluff||361||W|
|Nov 17||Home||South Dakota||164||W|
|Nov 23||Neutral||Georgia Tech / Utah||117 / 72||W|
|Dec 3||Home||Mississippi Valley St||360||W|
|Dec 17||Home||Nicholls St||247||W|
Like most first year coaches, Jans’ non-conference slate isn’t a killer. The first challenge is South Dakota, who is routinely one of the top teams out of the Horizon League, and there might be some tough matchups in the Fort Myers Classic. Marquette was an NCAA Tournament team a year ago, losing in the first round to national runner-up North Carolina. Shaka Smart appears to be a good fit and poised to keep the Golden Eagles in contention in the Big East from here on out. The other side of the bracket features Utah and Georgia Tech, who are going through their resets. Utah is coming off Craig Smith’s debut campaign, which ended with an 11-20 mark. As for Georgia Tech, it went 12-20 in Josh Pastner’s sixth season.
From there, the docket eases up until a trip to Minnesota, which went 13-17 in Ben Johnson’s first season. There’s also a neutral-site game against Drake, a top-100 team in KenPom the past couple of seasons. The Bulldogs also drew TCU in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
|Jan 7||Home||Ole Miss||49||W|
|Jan 31||Away||South Carolina||78||L|
|Feb 18||Away||Ole Miss||49||L|
|Feb 25||Home||Texas A&M||45||L|
|Feb 28||Home||South Carolina||78||W|
It would be best if you first looked at a team’s home-and-home opponents, especially the two rotating ones. This season, State received a slight break. Yes, Tennessee and Alabama bring back plenty of production with quality recruiting classes. But that’s balanced by six games against South Carolina, Missouri, and Ole Miss. If Jans can go at least .500 or 4-2 in those games, there’s a strong chance State avoids the cellar. Then there are the toss-ups: road trips to Georgia and South Carolina, home games against Florida, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt. Eeking out three more wins could put 6-12 or 7-11 in play. Of course, that still means playing on Wednesday in the SEC tournament, but again, it means Jans reached the program’s floor with an imperfect roster.
Jans’ crew played at a slow clip in Las Cruces and relied on a motion offense. Defensively, he deployed a man defense that could shift to a matchup zone look. Given their setup offensively, it’s not a shock they ranked in the 94th percentile for efficiency on trips that ended with hitting a cutter. Yet the Aggies were just solid in pick-and-roll situations (74th percentile) and post-ups (78th percentile) last season.
It also helped that Teddy Allen was around, soaking up almost 30 percent of usage and averaging 0.988 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. For quite a while this spring, Jans looked poised to add Isiaih Mosley, and had he landed with State, it would have been a coup for the Bulldogs. Players of Mosley’s quality rarely make what amounts to a lateral move, leaving a mid-major to join a rebuilding high-major program.
Mosley’s elite efficiency in isolation situations would have served as insurance for a roster that might not precisely fit Jans’ needs. But instead, Mosley returned to Columbia for a homecoming at Missouri.
This team desperately needs someone who can get a bucket. As much as I like Tolu Smith, he’s not that guy. Traditional big men are tough to feature as a primary offensive weapon, particularly as the shot clock winds down or at the end of a game. It makes it a little worse when the roster lacks adequate shooting around the perimeter to keep double teams away.
It will undoubtedly help if Jeffries consistently shoots the ball to keep opponents from swarming Smith on the block. Moore is a career 32.3 percent shooter from 3-point range — close to the Division I average — on over 200 attempts. But after those two, the supply of floor spacers runs low. Davis has only made 18.8 percent of 48 attempts in his career. Stevenson has attempted just eight 3-pointers in four seasons. Horton’s percentage (35.8%) is acceptable, but it’s on low volume. Reed might be their best option after canning 39.8 percent of 332 attempts in two years at SEMO.
If State can find any consistency shooting the ball, it opens up the interior for Smith, Stevenson, and Murphy. That makes this offense look a little better.
But defensively, we should expect a step backward. Howland’s teams were reliable at that end, only finishing lower than 60th in adjusted efficiency once during his time on the job. At NMSU, though, Jans’ teams were typically average, but the vets in the starting five should help.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
The record projected here doesn’t exactly match my feelings about this team. Jans is the kind of coach needed in Starkville, and he’s shown that his resourcefulness can get teams winning quickly. It’s why I was surprised that tiebreakers — needed after picking the result of every SEC game — had the Bulldogs bringing up the rear.
This roster has its issues, but it’s substantially better than South Carolina. And MSU’s headliners might be better than what Mike White found at Georgia. Jans tried his best to add scoring punch, and if it all meshes, you could see this group making a push toward .500 in the SEC. That’s enough to get you in the chatter for a bubble spot come March.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
Each spring, we spend a lot of time focused on the transfer portal, but data tells us that most up-transfers see their minutes and usage dip at a high major. If it doesn’t, then those teams tend to struggle. Think of it this way: Do you expect Eric Reed, the leading scorer on middling OVC roster, to dramatically change State’s fortunes?
MSU has good players in Moore, Smith and Jeffries, but it lacks a truly great one as a focal point. And while Jans has a reputation for quick flips, this job is on a different level. He’ll some time and patience.
About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.
If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.
* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player
GP - Games Played
%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury
%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team
%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.
%pts - percentage of teams points scored
ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.