Knowing who his next head coach might be, Mississippi State big man Tolu Smith made sure to watch New Mexico State’s two appearances in the 2022 NCAA tournament.
Smith came away impressed by the Aggies, led by coach Chris Jans, as NMSU upset UConn before falling to Arkansas in the second round.
“They were really good,” Smith said Wednesday. “They had a lot of good pieces. I thought they should have won the Arkansas game, but I’m not going to speak on it.”
A day after the loss to the Razorbacks, MSU hired Jans to replace Ben Howland. Smith had two games of tape on his new coach as well as a positive scouting report from former Western Kentucky teammate Trevelin Queen, who played under Jans at New Mexico State.
Offseason workouts have since begun, and Smith has learned more about Jans in the process.
The redshirt senior and his teammates are still getting acclimated, but so far, they like what they see.
“I feel like it’s going to be good,” forward D.J. Jeffries said. “I just feel like he’s going to be different.”
Smith, Jeffries and guard/forward Cameron Matthews all pointed to a newfound vigor within the Bulldogs’ coaching staff, which consists of Jans; assistants James Miller, David Anwar and veteran George Brooks; and strength and conditioning coach Dominick Walker.
Only Brooks, a longtime MSU assistant, is a holdover from Howland’s staff.
“They bring a lot of energy,” Smith said of the Bulldogs’ coaches. “They bring a youth and passion and drive for just playing basketball.”
That has translated to more of an up-tempo pace on the court. Neither Howland’s MSU squads nor Jans’ Aggies teams played at a fast tempo — both routinely ranked well below average nationally — but the Bulldogs have noticed a difference.
Smith said Jans — so far, anyway — has put more of an emphasis on transition offense than Howland did during his seven seasons in Starkville.
“I think he moves the ball really well, and he tries to get up and down,” Smith said of Jans. “I like to run the floor and stuff like that. I’ll get adjusted to his style of play soon enough.”
The Bulldogs’ players said Jans has also put an emphasis on more aggressive defense, something Jeffries said he was glad to see.
Jeffries, who began his career at Memphis, said defense is his “favorite thing.” The Tigers’ mindset was to defend hard for “94 feet” — the distance from one baseline to the other.
“That’s how I like to play. I like to be the aggressor. I never like to let my opponent get comfortable,” Jeffries said. “When a person gets comfortable, they can pretty much do whatever, and that comfort is big. I like to kill people’s confidence.”
New Mexico State fielded a worse defense than Mississippi State last season, with Jans’ first season in Las Cruces — 2017-18 — saw the Aggies in the top 20 in that category. MSU’s best defense under Howland — that same season — was ranked 40th nationally.
Matthews said Jans and his assistants are more “free-flowing” rather than insisting on the “technical and detailed” workouts the Bulldogs had under Howland.
Jans’ mentality, rather? “However you get it done, you just get it done.”
Matthews said players aren’t derided for things like failing to keep two hands on the ball or coming to a jump stop — “which we all still do, but it’s just like, we won’t get penalized as much if we don’t do it now,” he said.
Still, Jeffries noted Jans’ intensity has stuck out less than three months into the new coach’s tenure in Starkville. The forward struck a somewhat different tone from that of Matthews, his high school teammate at Olive Branch.
“I wouldn’t say he’s crazy; if you don’t do something, he’s kind of like OCD,” Jeffries said of Jans. “He likes things to be perfect.”
That, Jeffries said, isn’t a bad thing — just a “new challenge.”
He thinks Mississippi State could use one.
“I feel like it’s good for all of us,” Jeffries said. “We all get comfortable sometimes. Sometimes a new face is what you need to go to the next level, so I feel like it’ll be good being with Coach Jans.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.