STARKVILLE — Mississippi State men’s basketball coach Ben Howland normally stays even keeled. Bold declarations are few and far between from the coach entering his seventh year in Starkville. But that changed after the addition of two impact graduate transfers, three incoming freshmen and the retention of most of the core pieces of the 2020-2021 team.
“I will tell you this: Buy your season tickets now,” Howland said “Get on board now. We are going to be good and this is going to be fun. The Hump is going to rock … I think we have a great chance to be a tournament team this year.”
Much of the optimism stems after North Carolina transfer Garrison Brooks and Memphis transfer D.J. Jeffries both signed with the Bulldogs last week, giving MSU a projected starting five of Brooks, Jeffries, Tolu Smith, Iverson Molinar and D.J. Stewart (if he doesn’t stay in the NBA draft).
Brooks averaged 10.2 points and 6.9 rebounds for the Tar Heels a season ago and will be coached by his father, George, an assistant on Howland’s staff. The 6-foot-10 forward originally signed with the Bulldogs in 2017 but will finally play for them four years later. Even though he only took eight shots from beyond the arc a season ago (making four), Howland views Brooks as a player that can stretch the floor.
“I will never forget the first time I saw him was a 7 a.m. early morning high school workout, I watched him make like seven 3s in a row and it was ‘Wow, this guy is really good and skilled’”, Howland said. “So we want to expand on that and I think that really helps us stretch the floor. That is going to be an advantage for us, offensively, to have more spacing.”
Meanwhile, Jeffries averaged 9.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per contest while shooting 44.3 percent from the floor for the Tigers. MSU expects Jeffries to slot into the three position, but Howland said he’s very capable of playing at the two spot as well.
“We recruited D.J. incredibly hard coming out of high school,” Howland said. “He is one of the most talented players we’ve recruited, for sure, since I’ve been the head coach at Mississippi State. I think he is an incredible talent. I love how hard he plays, I love his unselfishness, I love his skill level. He can shoot 3s, he can handle the ball, excellent passer.
“He gets more joy out of making plays for others than any other aspect of his game. Very good defender, he’s long and I think he is going to be a huge addition to our program.”
Ado won’t return next year
After MSU’s blowout SEC tournament loss to Alabama in March, senior center Abdul Ado was conflicted about whether to return for a final season after the NCAA granted all winter athletes a free eligibility. But MSU’s career leader in games started and in the top three in career blocks will not be returning to Starkville for a fifth season.
“Abdul is not going to be back with us,” Howland confirmed Friday. “Abdul, I believe he is going to keep all options open but I think he is looking to try to play professionally in my discussions with him. I met with him on Tuesday and we talked about that. What he accomplished during his career here at Mississippi State and what he gave the program, he was a phenomenal player for us during his five years here. I am so appreciative of all he’s given to our program and all he did to help us have success during his time was really incredible. I love Abdul and I will always be thankful to him for what he gave Mississippi State basketball.”
Bulldogs still in search of one final player
Following sophomore forward Quinten Post’s decision to enter the transfer portal, the Bulldogs have one final scholarship remaining to offer for the 2021-2022 season. That addition is likely to come from the transfer portal rather than from the high school ranks. Howland said he’d prefer to add another guard to the team’s backcourt that can play at the one and two spots, but the Bulldogs will add the best available player.
There’s still a lot of games to fill in to complete Mississippi State’s nonconference schedule next season, but Howland did offer a glimpse of what will be on the Bulldogs’ slate.
On the road, the Bulldogs will take on a Big 12 team in the SEC/Big 12 challenge and will face Oklahoma State in a neutral site matchup in Fort Worth, Texas. MSU will play in a holiday tournament in the Bahamas that features Maryland, North Carolina State and one additional school yet to be determined. The Bulldogs will also host Minnesota.