The Dawgs of Starkville return to pester SEC offenses again. But with Tolu Smith out for a while, will the Mississippi State Bulldogs be okay?
As is tradition, CBB Review is again ranking the top 100 teams heading into the new college basketball season. Each day, we will reveal the next team until we reach the team slotted at number one. Follow along with #CBBRank on all our social media channels.
Mississippi State wasn’t expected to find itself ranked at any point in year one of the Chris Jans era, but by the Dec. 19 poll, the Bulldogs were 15th in the country with an 11-0 record and wins over Marquette and Utah. Unfortunately for Starkville, those good vibes didn’t last forever, as the team went 1-8 over their next 9 games, including losses to Drake, Georgia, Florida, and Auburn.
Once the team played itself out of bubble contention at 12-8, they simply made their way back, winning 5 games in a row, with 3 of those games coming against teams who would make the NCAA Tournament. Close losses to Kentucky and Missouri didn’t hurt the tournament bid too much, and a loss to Vanderbilt was negated by a solid win over Texas A&M. Going into the SEC Tournament with a 20-11 record, an overtime win over Florida finally solidified a tournament resume for the squad, despite a blowout loss to Alabama in the next round.
Facing off against Pitt in the First Four for a chance to play Iowa State, Mississippi State played their brand of basketball, but it wasn’t enough. Despite outrebounding Pitt by a margin of 49-28, the Dawgs found themselves down 60-59 with 2.7 seconds left and a chance to win. They shot a three (more on that later) that hit the rim and went off, and couldn’t get the putback to fall.
If the 1-8 stretch was stricken from the record books, this team’s record would have been 20-5. In fact, until the game against Pitt, the Bulldogs didn’t suffer back-to-back losses the entire season outside of the 1-8 slide.
Clearly a very solid team, the Bulldogs planned on bringing back all 5 starters from the end of last year’s roster. That ultimately happened, with Tolu Smith, D.J. Jeffries, Shakeel Moore, Dashawn Davis, and Cameron Matthews all returning to Starkville, along with rotational players Shawn Jones Jr. and KeShawn Murphy.
In the transfer portal, Jans brought in big man Jimmy Bell Jr. from West Virginia and high-shooting guard Andrew Taylor of Marshall from the D-1 ranks, as well as Trey Fort and Jaquan Scott from the JUCO ranks. For the freshman class, Jans brought in 3 underclassmen, guard Josh Hubbard, forward Adrian Myers, and center Gai Chol.
Before a discussion of the team’s fortunes this year, it’s important to note that the injury bug has already made its way to Starkville. First, it was oft-injured forward KeShawn Murphy with a foot injury that is expected to sideline him until late December. Then, October 5, Jans announced that Tolu Smith had suffered a foot injury in practice and would likely be out for all of the non-conference season. That’s a huge blow to the Bulldogs, whose offense has run through Smith for years. With both Smith and Murphy out, Bell and JUCO transfer Jaquan Scott will be integral in the Bulldogs’ games against Rutgers, Georgia Tech, and Tulane.
Bell was a big paint presence at West Virginia, and Saint Louis before that. He’s a big dude (listed at 6’10, 280) and has the potential to be a matchup nightmare. However, he needs to cut down on his fouls. Despite averaging just 18.5 MPG, he still accumulated 2.4 FPG, and was 2nd on the Mountaineers with 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes. Despite his size, he’s not huge defensively, averaging 0.4 BPG with a 2.5 block%, not close to the level of the top SEC big men. In terms of above-the-rim offense, though, Bell’s name will always be called upon.
Scott, who spent two years at Salt Lake CC, averaged a double-double with 16.8 PPG and 10.0 RPG last year. He could be a huge contributor in the wake of Smith’s injury. Not as big as Smith or Bell, he’s listed at 6’8, 230. His physicality, however, could still supplant him as the main fill-in for Smith until Tolu returns. He also shot 37.5% from behind the arc, a skill that Bell does not currently possess.
If those two struggle to come close to Smith’s production, (it’s impossible to replicate) freshman Gai Chol could find himself with extended minutes in the rotation. The 7-footer is a project, and wasn’t the highest-ranked prospect at just 231st nationally. But, when 2 of 4 players over 6’10 on the roster are out for an extended period of time, Chol will have an opportunity to show what he’s capable of.
In terms of the backcourt, there’s solid depth this year. Dashawn Davis and Shakeel Moore will start at the 1 and 2, and they could be the best defensive backcourt duo in the conference this year. Moore led the ‘Dawgs in steal percentage on the perimeter with 3.9%, and placed top 10 in the SEC in steals per game. While Moore and Davis both ranked in the top 20 in the SEC in defensive win shares, their numbers were still only good for 4th and 5th on the Bulldogs respectively, which goes to show how good the team’s defense really was.
Cameron Matthews will be one of the starting forwards again this season after starting 33 of 34 games last season. He’s one of the 3 Bulldogs that placed ahead of Moore and Davis on the defensive win shares leaderboard, landing at 7th in the conference. His defensive rating of 91.0 was 5th-best in the conference, and managed to end up in the top 10 in the SEC in BOTH steal AND block percentage. Hakeem Olajuwon would be proud.
D.J. Jeffries, former Memphis Tiger, will return to man one of the forward spots again, and he might be the best defensive player on the team, which is really high praise with this roster. Top 10 in the conference in defensive win shares and first on the team, Jeffries also placed top 10 in defensive rating and defensive rebound percentage. Offensively, however, he shot 4.3 threes a game at only a 27.2% clip. Inefficiency is a real killer on offense, especially on one that already struggled so much from behind the arc.
In terms of players coming off the bench, Taylor, Fort, Hubbard, and returnee Shawn Jones Jr. could all see anywhere between 20+ MPG to situational minutes depending on how the starters perform offensively, and it would be wise not to sleep on freshman Adrian Myers as well.
Fortune-wise, this team is much improved from last year on paper. How can it not be? All the defensive stalwarts return, and Jans added shooters in the offseason to try and fix the one Achilles heel of the team. However, this team’s fortunes will coincide with the health of Tolu Smith. While the non-conference portion of the schedule is important, there won’t be a true litmus test of how good this team can be until Smith returns for SEC games. This has the look of a team that could start out a bit wobbly, maybe lose a game they shouldn’t, (Washington State or Murray State maybe?) but ultimately puts it together once the team regains full strength and starts rolling into March at the right time. Record-wise, anywhere between 17-13 and 23-7 wouldn’t be surprising. This is an elite defensive unit, and a squad that no one will want to play come March.
Click here to learn more about our preseason top 100 teams heading into the 2023-24 college basketball season.
Head coach: Chris Jans (14th season, 2nd at Mississippi State)
2022-23 record: 21-13 (8-10)
2023 postseason finish: Lost to Pitt, 59-60, in First Four
Notable departures: Tyler Stevenson (Graduated), Eric Reed Jr. (Graduated), Will McNair Jr. (Transferred to Kansas State)
Notable non-conference games: vs. Arizona State (Nov. 8, Chicago), vs. Washington State (Nov. 18, Uncasville), at Georgia Tech (Nov. 28), vs. Tulane (Dec. 9, Atlanta), vs. Rutgers (Dec. 23, Newark)
PG: Dashawn Davis (6-2, 190, Gr.)
2022-23 stats: 8.7 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.9 RPG
SG: Shakeel Moore (6-1, 190, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 9.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.7 SPG
F: Cameron Matthews (6-7, 230, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 6.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.6 BPG
F: D.J. Jeffries (6-7, 215, Gr.)
2022-23 stats: 8.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.1 SPG
C: Tolu Smith (6-11, 245, Gr.)
2022-23 stats: 15.7 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 57.2 FG%
6: Andrew Taylor (6-3, 195, Gr.)
2022-23 stats: 20.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 4.7 APG, 36.4 3PT% (Marshall)
7: Trey Fort (6-4, 195, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 24.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.4 APG, 45.2 3PT%, (Howard College, JUCO)
8: Jimmy Bell Jr. (6-10, 280, Gr.)
2022-23 stats: 4.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.5 APG (West Virginia)
9: Jaquan Scott (6-8, 230, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 16.8 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 1.6 APG (Salt Lake CC, JUCO)
10: KeShawn Murphy (6-10, 235, R-So.)
2022-23 stats: 3.3 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 0.8 APG, 10.3 MPG
11: Josh Hubbard (5-10, 185, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 145 rated recruit
12: Shawn Jones Jr. (6-5, 205, So.)
2022-23 stats: 3.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0.6 SPG
13: Adrian Myers (6-6, 205, Fr.)
247Sports Composite 3-star prospect
14: Gai Chol (6-11, 245, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 231 rated recruit
Mississippi State Bulldogs MVP: Tolu Smith
Once healthy, Smith is this team’s MVP. Unfortunately, he’s expected out for all of the non-conference season with a foot injury suffered in practice. It’s an unfortunate development for one of the conference’s most underrated players.
Smith is the heartbeat of the Bulldog program, and has been since the COVID-19-affected 2020-21 season. Coming over from Western Kentucky and sitting out the 2019-2020 season due to transfer rules, this will be Smith’s 5th season in the program. Despite the team only averaging 65.7 PPG, Smith managed to provide 15.7 per game, good for 8th in the conference.
He’s an absolute force in the paint, and the offense ran through him all of last year. Also pacing the team in rebounds with 8.5 per game, he got to the line enough to shoot over 7 free throws per game. Unfortunately, he didn’t connect from the line efficiently, only shooting 58.8% from the stripe. Entering his 6th year of college basketball, that’s not a skill that is likely to be developed at this point. However, a lot of his work had to do with cleaning up misses. With 3.6 rebounds on the offensive side per game, Smith placed 2nd in the conference in offensive rebounds. (Behind Oscar Tshiebwe, of course.)
He’s no slouch on the defensive end, either. Leading the ‘Dawgs with 0.7 BPG, Smith is as difficult to drive on as he is to guard. His block percentage of 3.2% placed him 7th in the SEC last season among qualified candidates. While he’s not the best passer, he can distribute in a pinch if need be, collecting 1.7 APG this past season. Ball security, though, is a must. He paced the team in turnovers with 2.4 per game, so he’ll need to work on keeping care of the ball during the offseason.
The analytics love Smith, too. While the average win shares per 40 minutes sits at .100, Smith’s mark last year was .215, double the average player. While he placed third on the team in defensive win shares behind Matthews and Jeffries, he led the team in offensive win shares at 2.9. His usage rate of 29.5% was quite high, and for good reason. He was one of only a few reliable scores for the team this past year, and he’s one of the most proven players in the conference.
His health, of course, is paramount. Getting back onto the court will take until December at least, and for as good as the rest of the roster is this year, Starkville will be holding their breath until they see Smith back in the paint. Once he returns, the Bulldogs’s ceiling transforms from Round of 64 to Sweet Sixteen hopefuls.
Mississippi State make-or-break player: Cameron Matthews
Matthews, the 6’7, 230 forward, is almost as integral a piece on this roster as Smith. Starting 33 of 34 games he played in, he is the Dawgs’ glue guy. Every team needs a glue guy. Where would the world be without glue? Stuck using flimsy adhesives or welding everything. Luckily for humanity and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, glue does exist. Cameron Matthews is it. The team’s leader in defensive box plus/minus, Matthews is a dawg by definition.
Despite a low usage rate of 15.3%, (mostly due to a 3PT% of 15.2%) Matthews still made a difference everywhere else on the court besides the offensive perimeter. He’s an elite defender, and as much as that word is tossed around, he’s deserving of the title. Behind just Smith and Jeffries on the team in rebounds, Matthews is electric and as physical as you can get. Don’t let the 6.9 PPG fool you, he’s still one of the most important players on the squad. He can distribute, too, with 2.3 APG last year, 2nd-most on the team.
Mattews is able to score around the rim, and as long as he’s inside the arc, he’s capable of producing for the Bulldogs. His 56.5 2PT% was good for 4th on the team, and he’s precisely the player Chris Jans craves for most in his system. Just an absolute dawg. Able to both collect steals and block at a high rate, (Hakeem!) there’s no one that Matthews cannot guard. Guard, forward, center, Cameron Matthews is capable of stopping them.
If his offense is able to develop further outside, the conference better be on watch. Good luck stopping the Bulldogs when Matthews is playing his best basketball.
Key analytic: 3PT%
The Bulldogs weren’t just inefficient from the three-point line last season, they were historically bad. Out of 363 teams last year, they placed exactly 363rd with a 26.6 3PT%. Out of 721 individual teams over the past 2 seasons, the 2022-23 Bulldogs would place 720th in three-point shooting. The 26.6% mark was the worst by a team that made the NCAA Tournament since Winthrop in 2010. Not a single player shot above 34%, and only two shot above 30% from deep. The fact that the team won as much as they did was a testament to how good the defense was at times.
Multiple paragraphs are needed to fully explain how difficult it was for the Bulldogs to throw the basketball through the circle in the rim from a distance of 22+ feet. One game that sticks out is a 63-69 loss to Auburn. Mississippi State attempted 18 threes, and made exactly 0 of them. That’s actually impressive. Despite shooting 19.7 3PA per game, the Bulldogs didn’t make 10+ threes in any of their 34 games. To put it into perspective, Alabama did so 16 times, including twice against Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs won every game in which they shot over 40% from deep. The kicker? It only happened 4 times. Mississippi State had 6 games in which they had equal or less than a 15.0 3PT%, and somehow went 4-2 in those games with wins against Missouri and Texas A&M. In those 6 games, the ‘Dawgs shot a combined 100 threes and made just 11. That’s like Larry Bird after getting his talent stolen in Space Jam type numbers. That’s like using Shaq in an open gym on 2K type numbers. That’s like Bo Cruz when Ant gets under his skin type numbers.
But for what it’s worth, Jans addressed this chasm of an issue in the offseason. In comes Andrew Taylor from Marshall, JUCO transfer Trey Fort from Howard College, and freshman Josh Hubbard from Madison, Mississippi. Taylor could be a valuable 6th man and offensive spark off the bench, as he shot 36.4% from deep last year with the Herd, better than any Bulldog did. Fort should slide right into Jans’s system with ease. The JUCO prospect shot 45.2% from three last season at Howard College, and he’s had D-1 experience as a freshman at UT Martin. Hubbard might be the most intriguing. A smaller guard (5’10), he’s adept at scoring and is more than capable of coming off the bench and creating points for an offense that could be lacking in that aspect. Formerly an Ole Miss commit, he decommitted after Kermit Davis was fired.
In terms of returning players, there’s really only one as of right now that can be counted on to make a three consistently, that being Dashawn Davis, who led the team with a 33.9 3PT% last year. For as much hype as returning 5 starters brings to a team, this roster might have a deeper rotation than last year, where only 6 players averaged more than 13 MPG. Having a strong defense of course is always great, but Jans will have to throw Hubbard, Fort, and Taylor into the game early and often in order to keep opposing defenses on their toes, especially since the offense won’t be running through Tolu Smith until at least mid-December.
What qualifies as improvement in a stat when a team is dead last in the country? In Mississippi State’s case, a simple raise to 32.0% would suffice. That’s not even an average mark, and it would place them around 280-300 in the country. But it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as last season, and it wouldn’t force the defense to have to carry the team every game. Plenty of 32-34% shooting from deep teams have made runs in March. But never a 26.6% shooting team. An improvement would mean making the Round of 32 on the back of a great defense in spite of a bad perimeter game, instead of losing in the Round of 64 on the back of a horrible perimeter offense in spite of a great defense.
Mississippi State Bulldogs 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 6th in SEC
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Sweet Sixteen