D.J. Jeffries thought he knew what Chris Jans was going to tell him.
The Mississippi State forward didn’t expect his new head coach to react well to Jeffries’ decision to explore his options by entering the NCAA transfer portal. When he asked if he could keep ties with Jans and the Bulldogs while in the portal, Jeffries braced for the worst — something like, “D.J., once you leave, you’re gone. I’m done with you.”
Instead, Jans respected Jeffries’ decision. He gave the Olive Branch native space to make a choice. And he made sure Jeffries knew he was welcome back if he so chose.
For Jeffries, that was a surprise.
“I’m not used to that in the experience that I’ve had with other colleges,” he said. “Once you tell them that you’re done, they’re done with you.”
Mississippi State wasn’t done with Jeffries. And Jeffries isn’t done with the Bulldogs yet, either.
The rising senior withdrew his name from the transfer portal in mid-May, choosing to stay in Starkville and play for Jans.
“I’m just glad to be back,” Jeffries said. “All that stuff’s in the past.”
Once coach Ben Howland was fired on March 17, Jeffries wondered about his future. He’d only been at Mississippi State for one season after coming in from Memphis, and a second transfer would have kept him out for a full year.
Jeffries said he didn’t expect to receive a waiver allowing him to be immediately eligible to play at a third school. He was able to play right away in Starkville via the NCAA’s one-time transfer rule.
“I’m glad that I stuck with it because you never know what happens,” Jeffries said. “I didn’t want to put my fate in the NCAA’s hands.”
Many of his teammates had no such qualms, although most of them transferred for the first time. Guard Camryn Carter (Kansas State), forward Derek Fountain (LSU), wing Andersson García (Texas A&M) and forward Alden Applewhite (Portland) will all be immediately eligible. Former Alabama transfer forward Javian Davis will have to sit out at UAB and one-time Michigan State guard Rocket Watts will do the same at Oakland.
Shakeel Moore would have been in the same boat as Davis and Watts, entering the transfer portal after just one season at Mississippi State. The former NC State guard was unsure whether to trust Jans and the Bulldogs’ new coaches, but he ultimately informed Jeffries of his plans.
“D.J., I’m leaning toward coming back,” Moore told Jeffries.
Moore’s return, soon made official, was a big part in Jeffries’ decision to stay at Mississippi State. The two entered the portal as part of a hyped four-player transfer class last season, joining Watts and North Carolina grad transfer Garrison Brooks.
But things didn’t go to plan. A talented roster struggled all season, pushing MSU out of NCAA tournament contention. A day after a first-round loss in the NIT, Howland was fired.
It didn’t take the Bulldogs’ roster long to scatter. Only three scholarship players chose not to enter the portal — redshirt junior forward Tolu Smith, sophomore guard/forward Cameron Matthews and freshman forward KeShawn Murphy.
Matthews said his decision was easy. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Courted by prep schools in high school, Matthews never wavered. He remained at Olive Branch High School, overlapping for two years with Jeffries.
“I’ve never really been too much of a transfer type of guy,” he said. “I just felt like if I transferred, it would just be the same thing all over again, so might as well just stay home.”
Matthews said he was pleased to see Jeffries ultimately choose to return to Starkville.
“Deep down inside, I always wanted him to come back,”he said. “Him being my brother, I wouldn’t have been too mad if he went anywhere else. I always want what’s best for him. Personally, I just feel like this would be the best situation for him, so I was kind of happy when he came back.”
Jeffries’ return will help a team led by Smith, who had a topsy-turvy campaign thanks to multiple injuries and a positive test for COVID-19. The Bulldogs big man said he considered leaving after Howland’s firing but was enthused by what he saw from the new coaching staff.
“I just love what they have going here, the energy that they’re bringing and the new things that they’re trying to bring to the program,” Smith said.
Smith transferred in after his freshman year, but he said his experience was different. Calling himself a “fat boy” at the time, he left Western Kentucky knowing he was going to redshirt to get in shape and prepare himself for power-conference basketball.
He and his family visited and liked their experience. Assistant coach George Brooks — retained on staff by Jans — helped considerably.
“For my parents, that was the main thing: having somebody who was going to take care of me and actually give me an opportunity to show what I can do,” Smith said.
Smith narrowed his transfer list to four schools and let his parents choose from there. They selected Mississippi State.
“They picked the right school,” Smith said.
Jeffries, too, hopes he’s made the right choice.
Time will tell.
“I’m just focused on getting better with the new team and the coaches and growing and just happy to play Bulldog basketball,” he said. “We’ll see what happens this year.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.