Previewing the No. 8 team in the SEC, the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
If there were ever an example of how fleeting success can be and how quickly a program can go from consistent contender to forgotten aftermath, such a case would be the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
That feeling isn’t uncommon for a program that doesn’t count itself as a blueblood. Back in the day, State hired Richard Williams, who turned the program into an SEC contender and Final Four level school over 10 years. His assistant, Rick Stansbury, took over after Williams resigned and continued a run of success. Over 18 years, the Bulldogs found themselves in the NCAA Tournament 9 times, including six trips over eight seasons. When Stansbury “retired” at age 53 in 2012, the rope had slipped a bit in Starkville as the Bulldogs had missed the last three tournaments. With the subsequent hiring of Rick Ray, however, State bottomed out.
What does success look like after that?
Previous SEC Previews
- 14. Georgia Bulldogs
- 13. South Carolina Gamecocks
- 12. Texas A&M Aggies
- 11. Missouri Tigers
- 10. Vanderbilt Commodores
- 9. Ole Miss Rebels
Last Season: 18 – 15 (8-10 in conference) No. 67 KenPom
My Prediction: 20 – 11 (9-9, 8th in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 8.2 – 9.8 (8th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 8th in conference
KenPom Projection: 17 – 13 (8-10 in conference) No. 65
HEAD COACH: Ben Howland | Seventh Season, 116-82
To lead its rebuild, State turned to Ben Howland, who had been to multiple Final Fours, earned protected seeds at Pitt, and had a run of success at Northern Arizona. Recruiting missteps and errors in roster construction doomed him with the Bruins, but his seven years in Starkville have seen the Bulldogs return to something approaching respectability.
Yet, State’s only made one NCAA tournament—earning a No. 5 seed only to be picked off the first round—and strung together several ok seasons. Howland’s done that by putting together relatively soft non-con slates, helping the program average 19.3 wins per season. However, almost eight wins per season come against teams rated lower than 100th in KenPom. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have averaged 8.5 conference wins over that same stretch. Howland’s been a .500 coach in SEC play but hasn’t had the kind of Quad 1 or Quad 2 wins to get into the bubble conversation regularly.
Getting crushed in conference play is the easiest way to get fired, and Howland’s managed to avoid that outcome. But almost a decade in, can he elevate State past the point of just being respectable?
Seat Temp: COOL, MOSTLY
Stabilization is the word of the day. Howland has done wonders when it comes to recovering from the bottoming out of the Rick Ray era. Visually, the ratings go off the charts, while the recovery has been steady. However, just one NCAA Tournament despite those wins means Howland would do better to schedule harder.
D.J. Stewart’s decision to turn pro changed much of the fortune for Mississippi State heading into the season. Had he returned to school MSU might have found itself solidly in the mix for a top four finish. Stewart had transformed himself from a complementary piece to the NBA-bound Reggie Perry, into a high usage primary weapon. While Stewart’s mid-range heavy game flirted with inefficiency at times, he ramped up his production to help paper over a short bench.
In the post, Abdul Ado is an example of an excellent four-year player. But he also hit his ceiling early on and settled into a reliable role as a rim protector and dump-off option in the short corner. Asking him to do more than that offensively was a risk.
Ideally, Deivon Smith would be in line to soak up Stewart’s possessions and run the point. Unfortunately, the freshman’s minutes were inconsistent, and his turnover rate was a touch high. Seeking a new start, the former top-70 recruit transferred closer to home at Georgia Tech. Jalen Johnson was a strategic signing for a team needing a floor spacer, but the grad transfer spent much of the season injured. Quinten Post was stuck behind more consistent offensive threats around the basket and opted for more minutes elsewhere. Finally, Keondre Montgomery could never crack the rotation.
Iverson Molinar | JUNIOR | POINT GUARD
Stewart made up half of a one-two punch alongside Molinar, who took a great leap forward after a freshman campaign stuck biding his time behind Nick Weatherspoon. After missing the first three games of the season, Molinar settled right in as State’s leading scorer and primary ball-handler. If efficiency is your thing, how does a 25 percent usage rate with a 111.2 offensive rating strike you? Oh, and good assist and turnover rates? Molinar being that player and more is the key to the Bulldogs’ season.
Derek Fountain’s stat line — 5.4 points per game over 19 games — isn’t going to blow anyone away, but consider that Fountain only saw time in 3 of the first 17 games. However, once he was fully inserted into the lineup, he helped State climb 10 spots in KenPom’s ratings. Fountain’s output was inconsistent, but his presence created lineups with more athleticism as he took over minutes at the four spot, pushing Tolu Smith to the five —and Howland’s bulky twin-post offense to the wayside.
Cameron Matthews didn’t get significant minutes, but he offered athleticism and energy off the bench when Stewart needed a breather. That experience should help him into a more central role this season. Javian Davis transferred from Alabama and found himself in a similar role as a backup post, but he’s a big solid body and a reliable defender to keep in that role. Finally, Andersson Garcia is a rangy wing who struggled to crack the rotation but has a high upside if he can put it all together with consistency.
Tolu Smith | R-JUNIOR | POST
One of the more consistent players in the SEC last season, Smith flew under the radar as bigs like Colin Castleton, Trendon Watford, Jeremiah Tilmon, John Fulkerson, and Oliver Sarr served as offensive focal points for their respective teams. Still, Smith slid right into the role of primary post option within Howland’s offense, pairing a solid frame with a soft touch from 12 to 15 feet. As a result, Smith seems situated to be a direct option again within the State offense. It remains to be seen whether some newcomers take some of his touches, but his overall effectiveness should undoubtedly drive the ball into his hands this upcoming season.
Four years ago, Garrison Brooks spurned his father, who sits on the MSU bench as a member of Howland’s coaching staff, and chose North Carolina. Now the prodigal son returns home as a graduate transfer, suiting up for one final college season with his dad. At times, Brooks was an elite option within the Tar Heels’ fabled Carolina Break, starting nearly every game early in his career and averaging 16.8 points as a sophomore. Yet as Coach Roy Willams’ recruiting rebounded, Brooks saw his role reduced as players like Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe arrived on campus.
Wing DJ Jeffries spent two seasons playing in Memphis under Penny Hardaway but was caught in a tough bind: as usage increased, his efficiency dipped. A borderline top-50 recruit, Jeffries’ path to success rested on skill over athleticism, but he could never find the kind of consistency to emerge as a true top option. So looking for a reset, he left Memphis for Starkville.
The same could be said of combo guard Rocket Watts, an undersized and speedy talent out of Michigan. Watts, a top-40 recruit, stayed home to play for Michigan State, but his scoring prowess never translated. He struggled to shoot consistently, and as an undersized perimeter player, was either targeted by opposing defenses or let his focus slip at the end. An experiment with him taking over for Cassius Winston at lead guard didn’t last long. This offseason, he joined the Bulldogs, among the earliest suitors—assistant coach Ernie Ziegler has deep connections to the Mitten—for Watts.
Shakeel Moore, a point guard from North Carolina State, also arrives after seeing his minutes fluctuate a bit. He was losing minutes to a fellow freshman in Cam Hayes, so a move felt necessary. At State, he has a program in need of ball-handling support, so some early minutes should be there.
Moore will have contention for minutes at the point guard from four-star freshman Camryn Carter. Cater is a slender lead guard who likes to play north-south and play with speed. Howland isn’t known for pushing the pace, but Carter fits well, playing faster and getting downhill. KeShawn Murphy has a college-ready body, and he’s most at home playing around the basket. Alden Applewhite looks like a nice pickup as well. He’s got a good body and is a smooth shooting lefty with solid athleticism.
Starting with Molinar and Smith is logical. After that, I’d expect Howland to turn his attention to the transfers he added: Watts, Jeffries, and Brooks. Pairing Brooks and Smith gives some offensive punch to a twin-post look, while Jeffries’ length and switchability are a perk on the wing. Add in Watts and Molinar, and you have a formidable starting five.
Depth is a little bit of a concern. However, Fountain grew last year, while Matthews and Davis grew into respectable back-end pieces. Davis could be pushed early by the freshman Murphy. It’ll be interesting to monitor whether Fountain, a stretch-four, competes with Brooks’ for the bulk of minutes. What Howland does at that spot could dictate the Bulldogs’ stylistic identity.
My Projected Record: 20-11 | KenPom Projected Record: 17-13
As usual, Ben Howland backed into a non-conference schedule which should see State in the double digits in non-con wins, but with virtually no Quad-1 opportunities outside of the neutral court matchup against Louisville. The Cardinals have been up and down under Chris Mack, but he’s largely a good coach in charge of a program fighting pending NCAA sanctions. Recruiting has suffered as a result, but they’ll still be a tough out as they’ve got a few incoming transfers who could put them right back in the mix for the NCAA tournament. If MSU wins, they’d likely get Maryland, so either way, a 1-1 split in the Bahamas would be a solid trip. A home game against Minnesota shouldn’t be too difficult since the Gophers have started a rebuild, and a road trip to Texas Tech for the SEC-Big 12 Challenge isn’t a place where you expect to win. The Red Raiders turned to Mark Adams, the architect of Chris Beard’s “No Middle” defense as their head coach, so that I wouldn’t expect a massive drop-off in Year 1.
Opening with a home game against a team many have pegged as a top-four team, and two road games against solid, well-coached teams is a difficult task. Especially when one of those teams is an in-state rival. Getting Alabama and Arkansas twice is difficult, in addition to facing Kentucky and Florida on the road, so it’s a tough draw for a team with a lot of promise. It just doesn’t leave a ton of room for error. Howland’s best season in the conference was 11-7 in the 2020 season, where they had one non-conference win inside of the top 100 and only had three road wins against top-100 opponents. It wasn’t enough for the NCAA tournament then, and it isn’t likely to be enough this year. They need more.
As the offseason progressed, you saw the headlines touting the caliber of transfer talent making its way to Starkville. So, it’s easy to see why State’s a trendy sleeper pick in the SEC race. Yet, it’s also easy to overlook some issues with this roster. Molinar was far more efficient than Stewart and probably underrated by some who follow the SEC. Only five other high-major guards had similar usage and efficiency: Baylor’s Jared Butler, Houston’s Quentin Grimes, SMU’s Kendric Davis, Colorado’s McKinley Wright, and LSU’s Cam Thomas. Three of those players were NBA draft picks, and two of them—Butler and Grimes—headed up Final Four teams. Obviously, Molinar should be the key cog for this rotation.
With Smith anchoring the interior, the Bulldogs might have one of the conference’s best one-two punches. If Matthews and Fountain remain consistent reserves, the core that finished as NIT runner-up could finish higher than expected. Now add in the trio of transfers, including two former top-60 prospects, and you can see what would have State fans excited.
But what version of those transfers show up?
As mentioned earlier, Watts’ efficiency plummeted when he took over at point guard for Sparty, his 2-point shooting dipping to 38.3 percent from 50 percent. Meanwhile, his already inconsistent 3-point stroke fell three percentage points to 25.3 percent. The hope has to be that moving him off the ball as a complementary piece to Molinar helps Watts correct his course.
Jeffries is a prime example of Hardaway’s time at Memphis: a major recruiting win followed by inconsistent results. Jeffries’ defensive contributions aren’t in doubt, but he had the third-highest usage last season for the Tigers but the third-worst offensive rating on the roster. The silver lining is he connected at a 35 percent clip on 71 attempts behind the 3-point arc. If Molinar and Watts click, Jeffries could become a natural fit as a 3-and-D wing.
After posting a 122.4 offensive rating as a sophomore, Garrison Brooks saw an increase in minutes but a decrease in production, resulting in a rough offensive rating of just 103.7. But Brooks doesn’t levy the same kind of expectations as Jeffries or Watts. He’s a very solid college post player. But the question now is how Ben Howland will use him. If Brooks felt squeezed out in Chapel Hill, how would he feel if Molinar, Smith, and Watts were ahead of him in line for touches? And what if Fountain winds up being a better fit, improving spacing for Smith to operate on the block and keeping gaps open for Molinar and Watts?
The roster still has the potential to be a dark horse but it’s about the application. Ben Howland showed adaptability last year when he moved away from his traditional Smith-Ado frontcourt and allowed Fountain to step in. None of Smith, Brooks, or Davis will stretch the floor when they’re out there. Can Howland move his roster to be its most productive? Or will he rely upon the defense and rebounding which has gotten MSU back to respectability and little more?
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
On paper, State returned enough production and imported the right kind of high-upside transfers to be in the thick of the title hunt. At the very least, they should compete for a place on the NCAA tournament bubble. If some combination of Watts, Jeffries, and Brooks hits, this rotation is at least seven deep and will be competing for a double-bye in Nashville.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
Howland’s reputation is built on tough defense and a controlled pace. But to truly maximize players like Watts, Jeffries, and Fountain, he’ll need to modernize and get outside his comfort zone. Given Howland’s personality, how likely is he to make tradeoffs that come with more pace and more space? Clinging too tightly might keep the program on a treadmill and short of contending.
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.