Last season: 18-16 (8-10 SEC, 10th)
Head coach: Chris Jans (first year at Mississippi State, 7th year overall, 143-44)
Possession-minutes returning: 41.2 percent
Scoring returning: 41.9 percent
Projected record: 13-17 (5-13 SEC)
SEC rank: 12th
How Did We Get Here?
You’re going to notice a recurring theme in my previews of the schools that elected a coaching change (okay, okay, not Georgia and LSU): really?
I mean, sure, I understand the urge to get rid of Ben Howland, a coaching veteran who ended his Mississippi State tenure with five consecutive winning seasons, though only one of them ended in the NCAA Tournament (the Bulldogs were squarely on the bubble in 2020 when the tournament was called off, so nah, I’m not going to make a value judgment on whether they’d have made it that season.)
Really, though, what’s the expectation here? Is it better than Howland’s 59-67 SEC record — with a 46-44 record over the last five seasons? You could argue that Howland, at 65, was a coach whose best days were behind him, and you could argue that his performance was a disappointment in light of what you probably expected from him when he was hired — but replacing a coach who’s improved your program’s baseline is always a gamble.
Anyway, Chris Jans, owner of a 122-32 record at New Mexico State over the last five years, is in as the new head coach. winning or sharing the WAC title four times in five years (and being foiled by Bryce Drew of all people in the fifth year), making three NCAA Tournaments, and beating UConn in the first round of the 2022 tournament. Then again, since the WAC fell apart in the mid-2000s, everybody does that at New Mexico State. I always cast a side-eye at Murray State head coaches who get hired for big-time jobs, because since 1991, Steve Newton (South Carolina), Scott Edgar (Duquesne), Mark Gottfried (Alabama), Mick Cronin (Cincinnati), Billy Kennedy (Texas A&M), and Steve Prohm (Iowa State) have all parlayed the Murray job into a bigger job, and Cronin’s the only one out of that group who I would call a good coach.
Marvin Menzies and Paul Weir were extremely successful at New Mexico State before crashing and burning at, respectively, UNLV and New Mexico. I’m just saying.
The Portal Taketh Away
Well, State’s biggest losses weren’t to the portal. Iverson Molinar (17.5 ppg/3.6 apg) just decided to play professional basketball instead of sparking an NIL bidding war. You know, like college basketball players used to do. And Garrison Brooks (10.4 ppg/6.6 rpg) simply ran out of eligibility. It happens.
There were, though, some portal losses: Andersson Garcia (4.3 ppg/4.2 rpg) left for Texas A&M, Javian Davis (3.5 ppg/2.3 rpg) went to UAB, Rocket Watts (4.4 ppg/0.6 apg) left Starkville after a single year and bounced to Oakland, Cam Carter (2.2 ppg/0.8 rpg) is off to Kansas State, Derek Fountain (1.8 ppg/1.8 rpg) somehow landed at LSU, and Alden Applewhite (1.0 ppg/2.0 rpg) is now at Portland. I’m honestly surprised that guys who weren’t doing much at Mississippi State landed at power conference programs.
6’11” redshirt senior Tolu Smith (14.2 ppg/6.5 rpg) just couldn’t stay healthy last season. Smith appeared in 21 of Mississippi State’s 34 games but was effective when he did play (though ironically, Mississippi State went 9-4 in the games he missed and 9-12 when he did play.) He shot 57.6 percent from the floor and scored 20 points on five occasions. He also benefited from Ben Howland being one of the few remaining college coaches who will actually run offense through a traditional big man, and we’ll see if Chris Jans continues to do that.
D.J. Jeffries, on the other hand, was a disappointment. The former top 50 recruit came in after a disappointing sophomore season at Memphis and... actually got worse? 8.9 ppg and 4.2 rpg isn’t really what you expect from a highly-touted recruit playing his third year of college basketball. The talent’s there, but we’ll see if he puts it together this season. 6’1” junior guard Shakeel Moore (8.7 ppg/2.2 apg) was supposed to be the team’s point guard, but instead played more like a shooting guard. 6’7” junior Cameron Matthews (2.9 ppg/3.9 rpg) doesn’t do much on the offensive end, but was a useful defender on the perimeter.
The Portal Giveth
There are bodies here, at least. The best of them is probably 6’2” fifth-year senior Eric Reed (16.1 ppg/3.3 rpg at SE Missouri State), who was an All-OVC selection. 6’3” Jamel Horton (12.8 ppg/3.9 apg at Albany) was the defensive player of the year in the America East Conference. 6’2” senior guard Dashawn Davis (10.9 ppg/5.5 apg) was the second-leading scorer for a dreadful Oregon State team. All three will be getting plenty of minutes at Mississippi State, whose only proven returnee in the backcourt is Moore.
Up front, well, it’s more guys in their fifth year of college ball. Jans brought 6’10” Will McNair (6.6 ppg/4.9 rpg) with him from New Mexico State and salvaged 6’8” Tyler Stevenson (14.6 ppg/7.5 rpg) from a dreadful Southern Miss team. That’s a lot of experience.
Jans held on to one of Howland’s three November signees, top 150 in-state recruit Kimani Hamilton, who has good size at 6’8”. He brought in 6’2” guard Martavious Russell (who isn’t rated by 247 Sports) after taking the job and also got 6’5” Shawn Jones Jr. from the Houston area to come as a walk-on, in spite of being a three-star recruit. Oh, yeah, and there’s 6’10” KeShawn Murphy, who redshirted last season.
Unlike Georgia and South Carolina, there’s at least a bit more certainty because of the returnees. Tolu Smith, D.J. Jeffries, and Shakeel Moore should all start. Cameron Matthews could start, though I would really bet on two of the transfers — probably Reed and Horton — joining Moore in a three-guard lineup. That leaves Davis coming off the bench, while up front, McNair and Murphy provide size behind Smith off the bench, and Tyler Stevenson should carve out a role.
Mississippi State has easily the two weirdest neutral-court games imaginable on its nonconference schedule, playing Akron (Nov. 11) in Philadelphia in an event put on and televised by Barstool Sports (which, thanks for giving that company validation, Mississippi State, but seems on brand for Chris Jans) and also playing Drake (Dec. 20) in Lincoln, Nebraska. They’ll compete in the Fort Myers Tip-Off starting Nov. 21 against Marquette, then play either Utah or Georgia Tech in the second game, travel to Minnesota (Dec. 11) and host TCU in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Their six buy games aren’t particularly interesting, with three of them coming against teams rated outside KenPom’s top 300.
The Bulldogs’ SEC schedule does have them playing South Carolina twice; Ole Miss and Missouri are both about in their range. On the other hand, getting Tennessee and Alabama twice each is probably bad news for a rebuilding team.
Getting a little bit of continuity from the tail end of the Ben Howland era means that, at the very least, Mississippi State probably has a higher floor than Georgia and South Carolina — I can’t see the bottom completely dropping out as long as Tolu Smith, D.J. Jeffries, and Shakeel Moore are around. Then again, Moore and especially Jeffries have had disappointing college careers to this point relative to their recruiting hype, and as for Smith, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be utilized in the same manner that he’s been the last couple of years.
The portal acquisitions don’t jump out at me, either. Sure, Jamel Horton and Eric Reed were all-conference players at their last stops, and that might work out fine; but it’s a big jump from the AEC or the OVC into the SEC. And Dashawn Davis didn’t really stand out even while playing for a dreadful team. The freshmen don’t project as immediate impact guys, either. It’s hard to see how Mississippi State doesn’t take a hit compared to last season, but that’s kind of what you expect when a new coach comes in and the roster turns over.