Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Opinion: Chris Jans Has Raised Expectations for Mississippi State Basketball

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STARKVILLE, Miss.— When Mississippi State men’s basketball coach Chris Jans arrived in the spring of 2022, Bulldog fans were excited. The former New Mexico State head coach has been successful everywhere he has been and has quickly elevated the standard for men’s basketball in Starkville.

MSU had good runs in the mid to late 1990s under Richard Williams, including a 1996 Final Four berth, and won an SEC title under Rick Stansbury in 2002. However, after Stansbury resigned from his post in 2012, there was a dark patch for MSU basketball. Rick Ray was hired shortly after but had an abysmal run as he was fired in 2015 with a 37-60 record.

Ben Howland was hired as the next State head coach, generating much local and national buzz. The former UCLA coach led the Bruins to three straight Final Fours from 2006-2008 and coached several NBA players, such as Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and Jrue Holiday.

Ultimately, Howland was not the right fit and could never get over the hump, as he appeared in one NCAA tournament during his tenure and finished with a 134-98 record. However, Howland left Jans with a solid core of players to build around in DJ Jeffries, Tolu Smith, and Cameron Matthews.

Jans took that core and added solid pieces through the transfer portal, Dashawn Davis and Shakeel Moore, and got the Bulldogs back in the NCAA tournament in his first year. State finished 21-13 in 2022 and lost 60-59 in the NCAA play-in game to Pitt.

It was a tough end to the season, but Matthews, Jeffries, Smith, Moore, and Davis would be returning. State returned all five starters from an NCAA tournament team.

MSU would also add Madison, Miss. product Josh Hubbard through the high school ranks. The former MRA Patriot was pivotal in returning the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament, as the First-Team All-SEC freshman member led the Bulldogs in scoring 17 points a game.

The second season under Jans was similar to his first in terms of record, as State finished the 2023 season with a 21-14 record. However, State finished with three wins over the top ten teams and avoided the play-in game in the NCAA tournament.

State would take on Michigan State in the round of 64, and its season would come to a close as the Spartans won 69-51. Once again, State progressed under Jans, but he would have to replace Smith, Jeffries, Moore, and Davis.

Luckily for the Bulldogs, Matthews elected to return for his fifth year, and star freshman Hubbard did the same. In the modern day of college athletics, effectively using the transfer portal can overhaul a roster, and Jans did that.

Not only did Jans overhaul his roster, but the players he signed suggest the Bulldogs will play a different style this winter. State added three scorers from other Power Six schools who averaged at least nine points per game: Riley Kugel (Florida), Kanye Clary (Penn State), and Claudell Harris Jr (Boston College).

“We didn’t have a “hey, we are only gonna sign or recruit guys with that experience (power 6) level.” Certainly, it weighs in when you are making decisions,” Jans said. “It is a little bit easier to evaluate those prospects.”

The impressive part about Jans is his ability to build a roster; after his first year, he just had to add solid pieces to complement his returning players. This offseason he needed to add several pieces around Matthews and Hubbard.

Relying on so many new players makes the opening days of summer practice much more exciting.

“It is definitely different this year,” Jans said. “It’s exhilarating to get out there and see how they move in person and watch them go through the drills.”

The Bulldogs were a physical team that relied heavily on their bigs to start the Jans era, but Hubbard is now likely the focal point of the offense. However, it is problematic with Clary (16 PPG) and Harris (13 PPG) both being primary ball handlers on their previous squads and how they will adapt to being the second option.

“I am not concerned about that at all,” Jans said. “We are very transparent in the process… again, everybody understands if you wanna win, you got to have other good players around you.”

The energy of Hubbard is contagious, and Jans raves about how good of a teammate and how much of a hard worker the rising sophomore is.

“It’s fun to talk about Josh (Hubbard),” Jans said laughingly. “I am one hundred percent confident, even though I don’t know because I am not there with him, that Josh has continued to work on his game and his weaknesses… I want him to make more of a jump in the leadership category.”

The most intriguing addition to the Bulldog roster is Kugel. The Orlando, FL. native initially signed with State out of high school but backed out of his letter of intent when Howland left the program but returned to Starkville and will be a vital part of the new style.

After his freshman season in Gainesville, the 6-5 185 guard was getting a lot of NBA draft buzz, but he did not take the next step in his sophomore season as he averaged nine points, three assists, and one rebound per game. The talent is there for the rising junior; perhaps a change of scenery will put it out of him.

“When you get involved with a portal kid, and you have played against them it makes the process easier and quicker,” Jans said. “He will bring versatility to the table…. we changed how we played last year from the first year, and I think that will continue to evolve into more positionless basketball and those medium-sized guys that can guard multiple positions and play in all spots on the floor and I think Riley could be that kind of guy when he learns the system.”

The Bulldogs did sign a pair of young big men who will likely be relied on mainly for rim protection. Michael Nwoko (Miami) and Jeremy Foumena (Rhode Island) played sparingly in their freshman season, but they will play big minutes for State.

In just two seasons, Jans has certainly raised excitement and expectations for MSU men’s basketball. Mississippi State athletic director Zac Selmon recognized that and gave Jans a four-year extension worth 4.2 million dollars a season.

“I think they are gonna expect us to win more,” Jans said. “We are very appreciative and excited to be here.”

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