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SEC Basketball Preview: #7 Mississippi State Bulldogs

Previewing the No. 7 team in the SEC, the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Mississippi State Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most perplexing teams in the league last year was the Mississippi State Bulldogs. A one year makeover after the Ben Howland era wrapped up ended with a team terribly devoid of any consistent guard play, but one of the best post players in the league, but a truck full of long and athletic dudes. That team, under new head coach Chris Jans, fortified one of the best defenses in the country. It also put out one of the worst offenses among high major teams on the floor.

Three point shooting is pretty important these days and MSU was the worst three point shooting team in the country. Not one of the worst... THE worst. They made just 26.6% of their outside shots which was 0.08% worse than the next worst team UMKC. They weren’t particularly good from 2-point range either, ranking just 180th. And the free throw shooting was poor as well.

So what happens when you have one of the country's worst offenses and you bring just about everyone back from that team? Well, we’re about to find out!


Previous SEC Previews:

#7 Mississippi State Bulldogs

Last Season: 21 - 13 (10-8 in conference) No. 53 KenPom

My Prediction: 20 - 11 (10-8, 7th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 9 - 9 (8th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 7th in conference

KenPom Projection: 20-10 (10-8 in conference) No. 27

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Mississippi State Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Chris Jans | 2nd Season, 21-13

In many ways the job Chris Jans did last season was admirable. State lined up a pretty soft non-conference schedule, won a close game at an MTE over Marquette that aged very well, and slipped by some mediocre mid-majors before losing an ugly home game to Drake just before conference play. But the weak non-conference schedule coupled with a tough opening stretch of games led to a 1-7 start in conference play. From 11-0 to 12-8 is not how any coach wants to see their January go but Jans and his staff pooled together and they won five straight and eight of their next 11 to keep themselves in the NCAA Tournament discussion.

Jans has proven at each stop he can craft and cajole toughness out of his teams, and that’s what this MSU team exuded all last season. Things were rarely pretty, and watching State games last year often looked more like wrestling matches than basketball, but a good coach takes what he has and finds ways to catch a W. Last year Jans did that, he found a way to win. When you’re at a resource disadvantage you have to be resourceful, which is why Jans is a good fit for the job.

Seat Temp: COOL

msu 10 year look preview

The impact of Rick Ray is almost gone from memory as the steadiness of Ben Howland (along with some weak scheduling) showed how the bar is raised in Starkville. But still just two NCAA tournaments since the 2009 season including last year's trip as a play-in 11 seed.

I’m not sure where the expectations are for Jans making the NCAA tournament, but State showed patience with Howland after seven seasons and just one trip, but two of those years were really cleaning up the mess after Ray.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Tyler Stevenson graduation 34 27.10% 5.86% 4.78% 5.86%
Eric Reed Jr graduation 34 43.70% 5.68% 4.67% 5.68%
Will McNair Jr transfer 34 31.09% 5.01% 5.41% 5.01%
Kimani Hamilton transfer 12 6.01% 1.39% 1.42% 1.39%
Jamel Horton Jr transfer 14 12.54% 0.90% 0.35% 0.90%
Justin Rumph graduation 8 0.58% 0.27% 0.31% 0.27%
24.20% 19.11% 16.94% 19.11%

With scoring at such a premium on last year’s squad, losing any offensive output may not be all that bad of a thing. In all, 20% of the scoring went out the door, but Tyler Stevenson was the highest per-game scorer at just 3.9 points per game. Stevenson played about 30% of the minutes and mostly played behind Cameron Matthews who put a stranglehold on the four spot.

Eric Reed Jr. played the most minutes and was expected to provide some scoring punch after averaging 16 points per game and 35% from deep in his previous season at Southeast Missouri State. But Reed struggled shooting the ball at just 23.5%. Will McNair Jr. transferred to Kansas State for his final season after playing behind Tolu Smith for the entire season. Kimani Hamilton was a top 150 prospect who struggled to find minutes in a deep and experienced rotation. Albany guard Jamel Horton left the team halfway through the season, and Justin Rumph was a 4 year walk-on.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Tolu Smith G-SR POST 34 68.19% 23.95% 59.58% 25.13%
Shakeel Moore SR PG 32 60.94% 13.97% 49.93% 12.50%
D.J. Jeffries G-SR WING 34 76.88% 13.43% 43.93% 12.73%
Dashawn Davis G-SR CG 31 66.38% 12.04% 50.58% 11.94%
Cameron Matthews SR CF 34 66.23% 10.52% 55.56% 14.30%
KeShawn Murphy R-SO CF 19 14.13% 2.78% 51.80% 3.18%
Shawn Jones Jr SO WING 24 20.80% 3.45% 47.70% 2.99%
Martavious Russell SO CG 10 4.78% 0.76% 36.26% 0.37%
Isaac Stansbury* G-SR WING 8 0.65% 0.00% 0.00% -0.07%
75.80% 80.90% 83.07%
NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Second Round - Mississippi State vs Florida Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Tolu Smith | GRAD SENIOR | POST

The big news for most of the league was the return of Tolu Smith. After starting his career at Western Kentucky, Smith turned into one of the most productive bigs in the country under Ben Howland. Jans was very fortunate to keep Smith in a Bulldog uniform for his senior year, and even more fortunate he’s coming back for his extra COVID year in Starkville.

The bad news is early in October it was announced that Smith injured his foot and would miss an extended period of time, possibly until January as he recovers from the injury. Losing a player of Smith’s caliber, plus one who is the only real offensive weapon is a big deal. Tolu sported a 108 offensive rating and a career best 15.7 points per game to go with a stellar rebounding rate, and a top 15 free throw rate. And the most amazing stat about his productivity... Zero three point attempts.

It’s unclear how productive Tolu will be when (or possibly if) he comes back. And without Tolu the expectations for State have to take a serious hit. If Tolu is back for conference play and he’s still capable of being the Tolu from last season, then State can contend for a top four spot. But if any part of this injury lingers it could spell a tough season for the Bulldogs.

The rest of the returning roster is extensive, and they’re all good defenders and also poor offensively. It’s a theme. We’ll get into it.

D.J. Jeffries returns after his worst offensive season in his four year career including two years at Memphis. He shot a career-low 41.6% eFG and 43.9% true shooting, leading to a career-low 8.8 points per game. Dashawn Davis started 29 of the 31 games he played in, including the final 26 games. An Oregon State transfer by way of New York City, Davis is a respectable ball handler and assist man with a nearly 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. Both he and Shakeel Moore are probably the leaders to start at the point and combo guard spots. Moore was a transfer from North Carolina State who stuck with Jans and proved to be one of the better perimeter defenders in the leauge with a 4% steal rate (that’s really good).

Also back is redshirt sophomore KeShawn Murphy, a promising looking prospect who redshirted under Howland following an injury. But Murphy was lightly used last year. Shawn Jones Jr came in as an unheradled recruit, but his defensive tenacity and athleticism saw him get some minutes at the wing as the season wore on. Martavious Russell entered the transfer portal after not playing much his freshman season, however he opted to return and try to develop further under Jans.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Second Round - Mississippi State vs Florida Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Matthews | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD

The most memorable player from last season outside of Tolu Smith was Cameron Matthews, if only because he personified the team and roster more than anyone. A physical specimen who competed hard and at 6’7 and 230 pounds, Matthews is not a good offensive player. He has a limited skill set to say the least. Looking at his Synergy page makes you wonder how he was on the floor so much. 29 catch and shoots jumpers at just 0.41 points per attempt is horrible. He’s graded as a poor layup maker also at just 0.88 points per attempt on 84 shots. But he can dunk it, 40 of 41 when he can flush the ball. But Matthews doesn’t see the floor because he’s offensively polished, per EvanMiya.com Matthews projects as the most valuable Bulldogs using his proprietary Bayesian Performance Rating at 4.44, which is 19th in the SEC. Last season he was 8th in the league and nearly all of it comes from his defensive impact where he’s just a monster.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Josh Hubbard 5'10 185 ★★★ 145 PG
FR Gai Chol 6'11 245 ★★★ 230 POST
FR Adrian Myers 6'6 205 ★★★ NA WING
JR Lerenzo Fort 6'4 195 TRANSFER JUCO WING
JR JaQuan Scott 6'8 230 TRANSFER JUCO POST
G-SR Andrew Taylor 6'3 195 TRANSFER Marshall CG
G-SR Jimmy Bell Jr 6'10 280 TRANSFER West Virginia POST

A few freshmen, a few JUCOs, a few transfers. With so much of the roster returning, there wasn’t a huge need for Jans to land too many impact players from outside the program. With his familiarity with the JUCO market, Jans landed two top ten players in the JUCORecruiting.com top 100 rankings. The #3 player is Lerenzo “Trey” Fort who is originally from Jackson, Mississippi. Fort signed with UT-Martin but moved on to Howard College in Texas where he blossomed into a 24 points per game scorner. Jaquan Scott is a California native who signed with Cal-Fullerton out of high school but left for Salt Lake Community College where he became the 6th ranked JUCO player averaging 17 points a game. Scott is more of a combo forward who can stretch the floor a bit.

Jans also pulled a bit of a coup when he got the commitment of Josh Hubbard, a top 150 point guard, away from Ole Miss. Hubbard is on the smaller side at 5’10, but he’s stocky and physical and athletic enough to finish around the rim over taller players. Gai Chol is a bit of a project but has good measurables to become a reliable rim protector. Adrian Myers is a hybrid wing forward who can stretch the floor.

Perhaps the biggest signing this offseason came when Jans landed grad transfer Andrew Taylor from Marshall. A high usage combo guard under Dan D’Antoni, Taylor has been a consistent shooter over his four years at Marshall, and anyone who can help stretch the floor will help the Bulldogs. They also signed Jimmy Bell from West Virginia, by way of Moberly College, by way of Saint Louis University. Bell was a reserve big for the Mountaineers and chose to play behind Tolu Smith for his final season in college.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Shakeel Moore Josh Hubbard Martavious Russell
(2) Combo Guard Andrew Taylor Dashawn Davis Shawn Jones Jr
(3) Wing D.J. Jeffries Lerenzo Fort Adrian Myers
(4) Combo Forward Cameron Matthews JaQuan Scott KeShawn Murphy
(5) Post Tolu Smith Jimmy Bell Jr Gai Chol

The good news here is this is a deeper roster thanks to the newcomers. MSU roughly returns their entire starting five from last year with three reserves. And the import is good for an upgrade to the existing second team.

I’ve inserted Andrew Taylor into the starting lineup over Dashawn Davis if only because he has a chance to provide some outside shooting. Jimmy Bell should be able to fill in adequately for Tolu Smith until he returns, but Bell is not a replacement for Smith’s scoring output. He’s a solid post who is a good rebounder, but Tolu is an All SEC level performer so without him on the floor the interior is expected to take a hit.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 20-11 | KenPom Projected Record: 20-10

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 8 Neutral Arizona State 81 W
Nov 11 Home UT-Martin 285 W
Nov 14 Home North Alabama 218 W
Nov 18 Neutral Washington State 84 W
Nov 19 Neutral Northwestern / Rhode Island 40 / 193 L
Nov 24 Home Nicholls 326 W
Nov 28 Away Georgia Tech 118 L
Dec 3 Home Southern University 328 W
Dec 9 Neutral Tulane 95 W
Dec 13 Home Murray State 125 W
Dec 17 Neutral North Texas 87 W
Dec 23 Neutral Rutgers 59 L
Dec 31 Home Bethune-Cookman 350 W
179.67 10-3

Overall Jans upgraded the non-conference schedule from last season. It’s not the toughest non-con but it’s a step better than their weakened slate last year. Opening with Arizona State should be a nice early test, even if the Sun Devils aren’t expected to be as good as they were last year when they made the NCAA Tournament.

The Hall of Fame classic awaits with a potential second round matchup against what should be a good Northwestern team. If the Bulldogs can get past a decent Washington State team that is. Then they get Damon Stoudamire’s rebuild in Atlanta and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Plus a home visit against what should be a tough Tulane squad and a nearby neutral site game against North Texas, last years NIT winner.

Then there’s a semi-road trip against Rutgers, Steve Pikiell has turned out to be a terrific hire for a program that had not made an NCAA Tournament since 1990. Had there been a tournament in 2020 Pikiell would have three tournaments under his belt. His teams play hard, run good sets, and they make life tough in the Big 10. This will be a good test for the Bulldogs.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 6 Away South Carolina 66 W
Jan 10 Home Tennessee 8 W
Jan 13 Home Alabama 10 W
Jan 17 Away Kentucky 18 L
Jan 20 Home Vanderbilt 79 W
Jan 24 Away Florida 39 L
Jan 27 Home Auburn 15 W
Jan 30 Away Ole Miss 82 L
Feb 3 Away Alabama 10 L
Feb 7 Home Georgia 57 W
Feb 10 Away Missouri 55 L
Feb 17 Home Arkansas 14 W
Feb 21 Home Ole Miss 82 W
Feb 24 Away LSU 47 L
Feb 27 Home Kentucky 18 W
Mar 2 Away Auburn 15 L
Mar 6 Away Texas A&M 24 L
Mar 9 Home South Carolina 66 W
avg 37.59 10-8

Last season State got off to a rough start with their league record thanks to a really bumpy entrance to the league schedule. This year looks about the same. After opening with South Carolina things take a turn. There are two home games but they’re against Tennessee and Alabama, then a trip to Kentucky. So while things could take a turn, having UT and Alabama at home after a trip to South Carolina could also be a way to start off 3-0.

The home and home opponents has good balance, State faces Ole Miss and South Carolina who are projected behind them, Auburn who we think will be in a similar place in conference, and Kentucky and Alabama who project ahead of them. Plus getting Arkansas and Tennessee in Starkville are two big opportunities to get big wins.

OVERVIEW

One of the big myths that seems to permeate sports is that teams who return everyone from their team a year ago get better the next year. The truth is any growth from year over year tends to be marginal.

And for anyone who watched last year, it was easy to see that Mississippi State was a flawed basketball team. Specifically not being able to score the basketball is problematic if you’re trying to win basketball games. So then the biggest question regarding this team is how are they going to score the ball?

In the same vein, one of the reasons for so much excitement around the team was the return of Tolu Smith. Getting 15-20 points a night from a skilled post player who can cause the opponent to get deep into foul trouble, further weakening their defense, isn’t something you can paper over. To put it bluntly, Mississippi State losing Tolu Smith for any amount of time is a tough hill to climb much less losing him for the entire first half of the season.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Expect still that the Bulldogs might be the toughest most physical defense in the SEC. There’s no question that a team with guys like Shakeel Moore and Cameron Matthews can defend. KenPom projects State to field a top 10 defense. So does EvanMiya.com. So does BartTorvik.com. Basically, every site that uses some level of metrics projections have MSU as an elite defensive team.

Early projections for offense seem to be a little all over the map. But perhaps at least some of that is rely on previous years as a marker, and looking at last year as a bit of an outlier. That’s certainly possible, but this is where advanced algorithms and humans can see differently when it comes to predicting outcomes. Its hard to see MSU improving from the 176th rated offense a year ago to around 50th this year, especially when their primary option for offense is going to be out for the first half of the season.

Chris Jans needs to solve this riddle of having a deep and athletic roster and virtually no shooters. Moore shot 34.4% as a freshman on 61 attempts, but as his attempts increased his percentage went down, 31.4% as a sophomore, 26.5% as a junior. D.J. Jeffries tells a similar story, from 39% as a freshman to 27.2% last year. Cameron Matthews is 16-72 for his career, which is just 22.2%. Even Shawn Jones and KeShawn Murphy shot under 30% last year.

It’s hard for MSU to shoot as poorly as they did last year. Shooting 26.6% as a team is just hard to do. And as you can see from the guys who are returning, most of them have shot above 30% in the past. There’s a historical basis for thinking they can be better, and they should be better.

The question becomes how much better? MSU doesn’t have to be top 50 level on offense. I think that may be asking a bit much. Just shooting like 31% from outside would do wonders, especially if you can do that with a player like Andrew Taylor hitting his marks in the high 30s. Having just one player who can suck the defense away from the rim will help other lanes for the offense. It will make driving the ball easier, and pull defenders away from the interior once Smith is back and healthy.

Don’t expect State to suddenly become an offensive juggernaut, but going from awful to merely adequate would move them up the rankings a spot or three.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

At the very least this season, the Bulldogs are going to be a fierce defensive team. They were also almost comically bad at shooting the ball from outside last year, surely they can’t be worse, right? Even if the offense is still that bad, MSU was a tournament team a year ago so there’s no reason why they can’t repeat.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

It comes down to Tolu Smith, the primary scoring option for a team who struggled so much to score all year. Tolu is out for a not-insignificant amount of time, and it’s a foot injury. If he’s not able to be the same level of player he was last year, that puts quite a bit of the expectations at risk.


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.


GLOSSARY

* - 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.