G Iverson Molinar, 6’3 Jr.
G Rocket Watts, 6’2 Jr.
F D.J. Jeffries, 6’7 Jr.
F Garrison Brooks, 6’10 Gr.
F Tolu Smith, 6’10 Rs. Jr.
F Derek Fountain, 6’9 So.
G Shakeel Moore, 6’1 So.
G/F Cameron Matthews, 6’7 So.
F Javian Davis, 6’9 Rs. Jr.
G/F Andersson Garcia, 6’7 So.
G Camryn Carter, 6’3 Fr.
Since arriving in Starkville in 2015, Ben Howland has had only one losing season. More surprisingly, Mississippi St. has only been ranked in the AP top 25 once in that time. This year appears to be Howland’s second nationally ranked team.
Three of the Bulldogs’ top five scorers from a middling 18-15 season last year will be suiting up for Howland in November.
The Bulldogs’ leading scorer, Iverson Molinar, is among those three. Last season, Molinar made massive strides in his game. The guard went from averaging just under six points in his freshman campaign to a team-high 16.7 points in his sophomore season. Molinar’s return is a Godsend for Howland and the Bulldogs. If the rising junior’s game continues to develop this year, Molinar will be in contention for SEC Player of the Year.
Tolu Smith was the Bulldogs’ No. 3 scorer last season with an average of 12.6 points per game. A former Western Kentucky transfer, Smith led Mississippi St. in rebounds with 8.5 per game. The rising junior is an old-fashioned big. Standing 6’10 and weighing 245lbs, Smith’s dominance in the paint is understandable. His size allows him to muscle his way to favorable positions down low that allow for easy baskets and rebounds. Smith also forces the defense to foul him in order to stop him. In a league that only allows five fouls a game, the ability to average five free throws a game cannot be overlooked.
Derek Fountain was Mississippi St.’s surprise breakout player last season. Fountain exploded for 20 points and seven rebounds against LSU in his third game playing real minutes (Fountain had appeared in garbage time in four previous games, but never logged more than 5 minutes). The 6’9 forward struggled with consistency throughout the remainder of the season, but he ended the season scoring 10-or-more in two of his last four games. Fountain grew up playing guard and still retains enough playmaking and long-range skills to be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Losing Abdul Ado and D.J. Stewart hurts, but the transfer class Mississippi St. has put together more than makes up for their departures.
Last year’s preseason pick for ACC Player of the Year, Garrison Brooks highlights this Bulldogs transfer class. UNC had one of the NCAA’s most crowded frontcourts last season and ended with four players averaging 28-plus minutes at forward. Brooks suffered from this crowded frontcourt and saw his points-per-game average drop to 10.2 after averaging 16.8 the year before. Whether Brooks can recapture the magic of his junior season is anyone’s guess, but if not, it will not be due to inconsistent minutes.
D.J. Jeffries, a man best known in the Bluegrass for decommitting from Kentucky back in 2019, joins Brooks in Howland’s impressive transfer class. Jeffries struggled to find his shot last season; he shot 33% or less in 10 of his 28 appearances. While he struggled offensively, the former 4-star recruit shined on the defensive end. Jeffries recorded three steals in four straight games and ended the season with five blocks against his new team in the NIT Championship game. With Molinar and Brooks lining up on either side of him, Jeffries won’t need to put up big numbers in the scoring column. That being said, expect a handful of hot-shooting nights to propel him to some 10–20-point performances.
Rocket Watts is trading in one MSU (Michigan St.) jersey for another (Mississippi St.). The 6’2 guard was another player that struggled with consistency last season. Watts had four 15-plus games and four two-or-less games (half of those ended with zero points) last year. Like Jeffries, being surrounded by capable scorers will alleviate a lot of pressure for Watts and should allow him to find his comfort zone. Coming out of high school, Watts was talked about as a future pro. If he hopes to reach the level, Watts will need to improve his playmaking and long-range game. Expect to see both as focal points for Watts.
The final transfer joining this Mississippi St. team is Shakeel Moore. The 6’1 point guard is coming off a productive freshman season for NC State. Moore averaged 6.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals for the Wolfpack. The North Carolina native had some of his best games against tough opponents, scoring 10-plus against the likes of Duke, UNC and UVA. A 3-star recruit just two years ago, there is no rush for Moore to be a superstar, but he is on the right path.
Three additional returning Bulldogs will likely see action this year.
The first is Cameron Matthews. The No. 342 player in last year’s 247Sports high school rankings, Matthews had to work for playing time. The 6’7 guard/forward saw that work pay off when he ended the season with a team-high 19 points in the NIT Championship game. Coach Howland has mentioned that Matthews has grown a lot as a player over the summer, so he may get more minutes than outsiders would expect.
“He is doing everything else better…” Howland said of Matthews, “He is a better rebounder, better defender, better passer and is really a smart player. Cameron brings toughness but a lot of intelligence to the game. He is really, really smart and he knows where everyone is supposed to be.”
Javian Davis is one of the two remaining returning players in the conversation for playing time. Davis had a good freshman campaign at Alabama, but last year (his first in Starkville) he saw just about every one of his stats drop. Most worryingly, the 6’9 junior shot less than 40% from the free-throw line. As a forward, there is some leeway given to shooting, but under 40% from the charity stripe is a massive liability for the Bulldogs.
Finally, there is Andersson Garcia, the last of the returning Bulldogs. Last year, Garcia walked onto campus as a 6’6 3-star recruit. The sophomore forward never recorded more than seven minutes in his 11 games played last season. Frankly, Garcia is a long shot to be a regular fixture in this year’s Mississippi St. team, but his length on the wing may be useful later in the season.
Howland recruited three freshmen to this team, but none are likely to see significant minutes this year.
If any of the three freshmen were to see the floor with regularity, it would be Camryn Carter. The lone 4-star in Mississippi St.’s recruiting class, Carter is a 6’3 guard from Oak Hill. Between Molinar, Watts, Moore and Matthews, there is plenty of competition for minutes in the Bulldogs’ backcourt. Carter will have to earn each one of his minutes in his freshman season, but as an Oak Hill product he’s used to competing for playing time.
The biggest hurdle for this Mississippi St. team is injuries. Watts and Smith will both miss time at the beginning of the season.
Watts had a hip procedure in June that should sideline him until mid-November. The Michigan St. transfer will be eased back into play when Howland and his staff decide to return Watts to the floor.
Smith is expected to miss the majority of November with a foot injury. Like Watts, there is no reason for Smith to be rushed back onto the court and he will see limited time when he is deemed healthy.
Both Watts and Smith should be healthy by SEC play but beginning the season without two starters makes it much harder to build chemistry. With four transfers expected to have a large role with the team, Howland cannot afford to waste time building familiarity between his players. Both injuries are minor, but the impacts of frequent lineup changes and less time for players to get used to one another may be seen long after the injuries’ rehabs.
PROJECTION: Top 25
Ceiling: Top 15
Floor: NIT Contenders