Mississippi State leaning on veterans to repeat NCAA bid. Finding scoring is key with Tolu Smith out

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Mississippi State and Chris Jans want more after reaching the NCAA Tournament during his first season in Starkville.

The Bulldogs will have to do it with star center Tolu Smith sidelined until mid-January with a left foot injury.

Losing its leading scorer and All-SEC first team selection for significant time is a setback for a squad looking to follow up an appearance in March Madness. The 6-foot-11 Smith averaged 15.7 points and 8.5 rebounds last season and returned for a fifth season intent on leading the Bulldogs even further.

MSU’s upside is welcoming back several regulars from the nation’s No. 9 scoring defense (61 points allowed per game). More notably, it returns nearly 81% of its scoring, 72% of its rebounding and 84% of its assists from a squad that ended a four-year NCAA drought before falling 60-59 to Pitt at the First Four.

The regulars besides Smith provide a good baseline with nearly 36 points and 15 rebounds per contest. More will be expected of several sophomores along with a group of newcomers that includes two Division I transfers and four freshmen.

“If there’s going to be a silver lining (with) the injuries that have happened. ... is that they’ll bond together and understand that everyone’s got to pick it up a little bit here and there in order to keep the train moving,” Jans said.

MSU has added former West Virginia starting forward Jimmy Bell Jr. and Marshall 1,600-point scorer Andrew Taylor via the transfer portal along with junior college players Trey Fort (Howard College) and Jaquan Scott (Salt Lake Community).

Considering Jans’ transitional season ended up making school history with the most wins by a first-year coach, he believes this squad can progress even with Smith sidelined. The Bulldogs, who received votes in the AP Top 25 preseason poll, earned three wins during a summer tour of Portugal that was instrumental to building chemistry. They now must sustain that cohesion to offset a big loss on both ends of the floor.

Smith is confident it will happen, and plans to help the process from the sideline.

“We have a lot of firepower,” Smith said on HailState.com’s ‘Dear Ol’ State’ podcast. “We’ve got a lot of good pieces and obviously we’ve got the head of the snake, coach Jans, so you can’t go wrong with him.”

IRONMAN BELL

Jimmy Bell averaged just 4.8 points per game last season with the Mountaineers but started all 34 games while grabbing 5.2 rebounds per contest. The 6-foot-10 graduate transfer should bolster a defense that held opponents to 39% shooting, not mention to fill a big spot with Smith out. Jans noted that while he isn't trying to replace Smith, "Jimmy Bell is obviously going to be relied on to burden some of the load until Tolu gets back.”

SEARCHING FOR OFFENSE

Stingy as MSU was, its offense ranked next to last in the SEC at 65.9 points per contest. The Bulldogs might be initially challenged to create points, which makes the additions of Taylor (20.2 points per game last season at Marshall), Fort (24.9 points) and Scott (16.8) critical. Taylor tied for No. 21 nationally in scoring and helped the Thundering Herd rank eighth at 81.8 per contest.

ANOTHER STRONG CLASS

The Bulldogs also welcome freshmen Harrison Alexander, 7-foot Gain Chol, Josh Hubbard and Adrian Myers. They helped MSU jump to 36th in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings and 56th overall. Last year they ranked 89th and 65th respectively.

DAWGS’ NEW DIGS

The Bulldogs will be viewed differently after more than 18 months of renovations at Humphrey Coliseum. They will include a new 6,000-square-foot sideline club for premium ticket holders, expanded concourses with sightlines to the court and two grand lobbies added with direct views into the seating bowl among other fan amenities.

CHALLENGING OPENING

The Bulldogs open on Nov. 8 against Arizona State in Chicago before facing Washington State and either Northwestern or Rhode Island in Uncasville, Connecticut, at the Hall of Fame Classic. MSU visits Georgia Tech on Nov. 28 in the ACC/SEC Challenge and opens league play on Jan. 6 at South Carolina in the first of two meetings. MSU will also face Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi twice in SEC play.

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