STARKVILLE –– Last offseason could be summarized as a turnover-filled couple of months concerning the Mississippi State men’s basketball team. The Bulldogs lost their four leading scorers from the 2019-2020 season that was abruptly cut short in Nick Weatherspoon, Robert Woodard II, Reggie Perry and Tyson Carter. Two of those were expected, and two were not (Weatherspoon and Woodard II) according to MSU coach Ben Howland. Other general attrition set in, with MSU losing role players that saw their minutes dwindle as the season progressed like Prince Oduro, Devin Butts and Keyshawn Feazell.
While there will likely still be some roster turnover this offseason (including one reported departure already Tuesday), the attrition figures to be significantly less than a year ago. Howland told reporters after his team’s NIT championship loss Sunday he expects most of the current core to remain intact. He added that he and his staff will hit the transfer portal hard in the coming weeks for finishing pieces to a young roster that progressed as the season went along. Considering more than 1,000 players have put their names in the portal, there will be no shortage of premium additions to choose from. Bolstered by the commitments of incoming freshmen KeShawn Murphy and Alden Applewhite, the Bulldogs will go from a team projected to finish 12th in the SEC preseason polls to one with NCAA tournament expectations.
The following is a projected look at where things stand with current players on the MSU roster:
Out the door: Keondre Montgomery
A 6-foot-7 freshman guard/forward, it was hard to see a path to playing time for Montgomery on this current roster. Rated a three-star recruit by 247 Sports, Montgomery appeared in six games for MSU this season, all of which were regulated to garbage time duty. A source confirmed to The Dispatch Tuesday Montgomery will enter the transfer portal and explore other opportunities. Paul Jones of 247 Sports was the first to report the news.
Not likely to return: Jalen Johnson
Johnson’s one season with the Bulldogs didn’t turn out as originally hoped. After averaging double figures with Louisiana in 2019-2020, the graduate transfer only averaged 5.2 points per game. Johnson, who was billed as a shooter, didn’t see the floor again after MSU’s regular season finale, not getting any minutes in either the SEC tournament or the NIT. Because of the blanket waiver given to all winter sports athletes from the NCAA, Johnson has another year of eligibility to use if he so wishes. But if he chooses to extend his college career, it likely won’t be with the Bulldogs.
Already said he’s coming back: Iverson Molinar
Howland would tell anyone who listened early in the season Molinar made the biggest leap from a freshman to sophomore year of any player he’s coached since Russell Westbrook. Molinar proved Howland’s words accurate by leading the Bulldogs with 16.7 points per game and making 43 percent of his 3-pointers. Molinar told reporters after an SEC tournament loss to Alabama he anticipates returning to Starkville for his junior season. He’ll be one of the conference’s best returning players.
Decent chance he’s back, but you never know: D.J. Stewart
The other key development for MSU was the breakout of Stewart, who was a key backcourt mate for Molinar and was second on the team in scoring (averaging 16 points per night). Stewart is the likelist of any of the current group to test the NBA draft waters, but the pro consensus on him is split. As of Monday, NBADraftnet.com’s mock draft had Stewart going 35th overall, which would be five spots higher than Woodard was picked a year ago. Other popular mock draft websites like Tankathon don’t even have Stewart listed in its two-round mock. Don’t be surprised if Stewart, or Molinar for that matter, enter their names in the NBA draft, similar to what other players have done in the past, to get feedback from pro scouts. If Stewart feels his stock can improve with another year in school, he will return for his junior season.
The man in the middle: Abdul Ado
Even though Ado was a senior this fall, he has the option to return if he wishes without his scholarship counting against the team’s limit because of the blanket waiver. After the SEC tournament loss to Alabama, Ado hadn’t made up his mind on whether he’d return or not and expressed an undying love for being part of MSU. It may be fair to refer to Ado as the heart and soul of this year’s team considering he has started more games than any other Bulldog player in history and is near the top of the school’s list in career blocks. But, Ado took part in the team’s senior day festivities, and while his mind can certainly change after that happens, players typically don’t partake in those ceremonies if they don’t think it’s their last year with a team.
A key post scoring presence: Tolu Smith
It was unfortunate Smith had to miss the last three games of the season because of COVID-19 contact tracing protocols, but the 6-foot-10 sophomore provided a consistent scoring and rebounding presence in the post for the Bulldogs all year. Smith was third on the team with 12.6 points per night and averaged a team-high 8.5 rebounds per game. If Ado departs, Tolu should be able to slide into his natural position of center instead of power forward and make a seamless transition.
True freshmen from last season that could be starters or key pieces next year: Deivon Smith, Derek Fountain
What role each player starts the 2020-2021 season will probably have more to do with potential transfer portal additions than anything else. Toward the end of the season, Smith was consistently playing 30 to 34 minutes per game even though he was coming off the bench. The former four-star prospect showcased flashes of brilliance and raw athletic ability, but was plagued by too many turnovers for a true point guard and a low free throw percentage. Smith told reporters after the NIT championship correcting his 61 percent charity stripe clip is his top priority in the offseason. Meanwhile, after not playing the first half of the year, Fountain found his role getting larger and larger by midseason, eventually finding his way into the starting lineup. A 20-point performance against LSU was the highlight of his season and he shot 38 percent from long range, but he’ll have to score with more consistency to cement himself as a full-time starter.
Rotation pieces: Cameron Matthews, Javian Davis, Quinten Post
No one gets after it on defense quite like Matthews. He’s impressed on that end of the floor from day one, and notably made game-saving defensive plays on two separate occasions. However, his offensive production leaves a lot to be desired. Matthews finally broke through offensively in the season finale with a 19-point effort against Memphis, but he still only averaged 2.7 points per game, shot 31 percent from the free throw line and 27 percent from long range (three of his seven 3-pointers this year also came against the Tigers).
Factoring in the Murphy signing, it’s possible either Davis or Post could be an odd man out and choose to play elsewhere considering neither scored with any consistency, but both gave MSU productive minutes in select spurts throughout the 2020-2021 season.
Who knows: Andersson Garcia
Garcia’s shining moment this season was in the season finale, stealing a pass and converting a layup to tie the NIT championship at 31 apiece two seconds before halftime. That aside, the 6-foot-7 guard/forward never played longer than 7 minutes in the 11 games he saw action this season. Considering the presence of Smith, Fountain, Molinar and Stewart in addition to whatever newcomers the Bulldogs add, it’s hard to see a path to extended minutes for Garcia. That said, Howland went out of his way in his season ending press conference to praise Garcia for his rebounding effort in practice day in and day out, so the team is high on his ability.