STARKVILLE — Chris Jans knows what it’s like to be Akron.
The Mississippi State men’s basketball coach — whose only prior head coaching gig came at New Mexico State of the Western Athletic Conference — can empathize with a mid-major team set to take on a Southeastern Conference opponent.
“I know how that feels when you’re playing a Power Five more than I do the other way,” Jans said Monday. “But I’m going to use that to my advantage all week long and get our kids to understand what this would mean to (Akron). We have to look at it the same way.”
MSU (1-0) takes on the Zips (1-0) — last year’s Mid-American Conference champions — at 6 p.m. in the Barstool Sports Invitational in Philadelphia.
It’s the first road trip for Jans as the head coach of the Bulldogs, and he’s looking forward to it.
“I think that’s probably the true test of how good your team is — how you perform away from home,” Jans said Wednesday. “Most teams, at least the good teams, win the majority of their games at home, but the great teams are the ones that can go on the road and find ways to overcome what the road brings.
“It’s a heck of an early-season test for us, and I’ll be anxious just like you all to see how we perform.”
Mississippi State performed well in the second half of Monday’s season opener against Texas A&M–Corpus Christi, erasing a five-point halftime deficit and cruising to a 63-44 win.
Akron, Jans noted, is a more dangerous opponent.
The Zips nearly upset UCLA in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament as a No. 13 seed, and they pose a tougher challenge than the Islanders did.
“It’s going to be harder,” Jans said. “They’re bigger, stronger, faster than the team we played.”
Akron returns guard Xavier Castaneda, who averaged 13.6 points per game last season but scored 31 in the Zips’ overtime win over South Dakota State on Monday.
Big man Enrique Freeman scored 13.2 points per game while pulling down 10.8 rebounds per contest, and he returns for Akron, too.
Told Wednesday that Freeman is just 6-foot-7, Jans said he was surprised by the measurement.
“He plays bigger than that,” he said. “He plays stronger than that. He’s got an energy about him, a toughness about him. He’s been very well schooled on both ends of the floor.”
Akron is rather undersized as a whole, with its biggest rotation player standing 6-foot-9. The Zips are No. 281 in KenPom’s “height” metric — something Jans has consulted before — while Mississippi State ranks 77th at nearly three inches taller per player.
Jans said most coaches would profess that a size advantage doesn’t matter but that he would have to see the disparity Friday evening.
“I’ll know more when we’re on the floor and we’re at their level and see if we do indeed have a physical advantage,” Jans said.
That’s not something Jans is used to. Of his New Mexico State teams, only last year’s squad had decent size; before, Jans’ players used their lack thereof as a chip on their diminutive shoulders.
Akron might employ the same tactic.
If the Zips do, Mississippi State will have to be ready for a talented small-conference team.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Jans said. “These kids are going to play really, really hard. There’s going to be a lot on the line for an early-season game. I know their staff and their players are licking their chops with an opportunity to play us on a neutral floor, so we’ll have our hands full, for sure.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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