Tolu Smith couldn’t sleep.
The Mississippi State big man found it hard to get much rest when the Bulldogs’ struggles last season crossed his mind. Smith was haunted by blown leads, made miserable by missed opportunities.
“I was watching film all the time like, ‘What could we do better?’” Smith said.
It was a fair question amid a disappointing season for MSU. Entering the season with NCAA tournament hopes, the Bulldogs floundered down the stretch and wound up with an 18-16 record.
After a first-round loss in the NIT, coach Ben Howland was fired.
“We all feel like we were much better than what we were,” forward D.J. Jeffries said. “It was rough. It was just hard. We were so talented. We all felt like we could have been much better.”
Jeffries was one of four transfer players who joined Smith and guard Iverson Molinar in Starkville, assembling what might have been Howland’s most talented roster in seven years.
It didn’t work. Mississippi State lost close game after close game, sinking to the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference standings. The painful defeats piled up: at Arkansas, at LSU, at Alabama, against Auburn in overtime and plenty more.
And they’re still hard for the Bulldogs to forget.
“I’m a sore loser,” Smith said. “I hate losing. I still think about the Arkansas game or the Auburn game. I try not to think about it because I know it’s bad for momentum, but it’s just hard to cope with.”
Jeffries chalked MSU’s struggles up to an inability to “jell” as a team. He said Bulldogs players didn’t trust their teammates enough to make extra passes or avoid turnovers and other ugly possessions.
To Jeffries, it always seemed to result in the same feeling as MSU’s leads slipped away: “Ah, man, here it goes again.”
The disappointing year not only led to Howland’s ouster but to the disintegration of the roster. Jeffries and guard Shakeel Moore both entered the NCAA transfer portal after the season, though they eventually chose to return. Six other players, including guard/forward Andersson García and guard Rocket Watts, left Starkville for good via the portal.
That wouldn’t have been the case had the Bulldogs had a successful season, according to Jeffries.
“We wouldn’t have had so much disappointment; we wouldn’t have had guys transfer or think about transferring,” he said.
Rebuild under Jans
The attrition after Howland’s firing cost the Bulldogs several talented players, but it allowed new coach Chris Jans to rebuild the roster through the very same transfer portal.
Jans’ biggest additions have been at guard, as the new MSU coach has landed Oregon State’s Dashawn Davis, Southeast Missouri’s Eric Reed, Jr. and Albany’s Jamel Horton. Big man Will McNair Jr. will also follow Jans from New Mexico State to Starkville.
Jans also convinced both Jeffries and Moore to remain with the Bulldogs. The duo announced their returns in mid-May.
“We both agreed that we could do something here,” Moore said. “We could come back and change things around with a new coach.”
MSU also brings in two freshmen, Kimani Hamilton from Clinton and Martavious Russell from Sipsey Valley (Alabama). Russell is already on campus, as is Reed.
Guard/forward Cameron Matthews said he liked the early returns from the two newcomers and the Bulldogs’ returners.
“I feel good about our roster right now,” he said. “Watching the workouts, everybody’s getting after it. Everybody’s getting better. I feel like we’ll be pretty good this year.”
Moore said the Bulldogs’ aim of making the NCAA tournament hasn’t changed from last season. For Smith, getting to the Big Dance has been something he’s always wanted to do.
And the MSU big man expressed confidence in crossing that off his bucket list in 2023.
“I think we’re going to have a really good year,” Smith said. “I think we’re going to have a phenomenal year. It’s just a matter of what we do. We’ve just got to have the year we know we could have.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.