Mississippi State Basketball: The future could not be brighter for Bulldogs

Feb 21, 2023; Columbia, Missouri, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Chris Jans reacts to play against the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Mizzou Arena. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 21, 2023; Columbia, Missouri, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Chris Jans reacts to play against the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Mizzou Arena. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports /

Year One is in the books for Chris Jans and Sam Purcell as basketball coaches in Starkville, and the future for Mississippi State Basketball could not be brighter.

The opening rounds of the Men’s and Women’s NCAA Tournaments wrapped up on Monday evening, and March Madness is in full swing, delivering the stunning upsets and thrilling finishes we crave each year. But unfortunately, the Mississippi State basketball season has come to an end.

Mississippi State Men’s Basketball lost a heartbreaker to Pitt in the First Four in Dayton last Tuesday night, going one-and-done in the postseason and just missing out on advancing to the Round of 64.

Mississippi State Women’s Basketball was more fortunate, winning their own First Four game against Illinois before pulling off a historic upset over Creighton in dominant fashion. But they too fell victim to heartbreak in the Round of 32, coming up short in a tightly-contested, slugfest against 3-seed Notre Dame in South Bend.

We’d love to be discussing how both Mississippi State Basketball squads would fare in hypothetical Sweet 16 matchups right now and laying out a path for a run to the Final Four, but alas, we’ll have to wait at least one more year for that dream to become reality.

As disappointing as it is for the season to end for Mississippi State basketball, it affords us the opportunity to reflect on what was a monumental year for Bulldog Basketball.

A little over a year ago, Mississippi State announced the hires of a pair of new basketball coaches. On the women’s side, Louisville assistant Sam Purcell was given the reigns to a Bulldog program that had fallen from great heights in the span of just two seasons.

For men’s basketball, New Mexico State head coach Chris Jans, fresh off leading the Aggies to a tournament upset of 5-seed UConn, came to Starkville with the task of rejuvenating a stale program with dwindling support.

Each coach came in with their own unique personality, accolades, and question marks. Purcell is a salesman. He boasts a high-energy, “Mr. Positivity” attitude that fans, and more importantly, players are drawn to. And that quality has made him one of the best recruiters in all of women’s basketball. But prior to this season, he had no head coaching experience.

On the other hand, Jans is very much the classic “Ball Coach”. He grinded his way slowly up the coaching ranks, winning at a high level both as a junior college and mid-major head coach. His teams play with a brand of physicality and toughness reflective of his upbringing, a style Mississippi State fans have been known to fall in love with.

But could he succeed in the SEC, which has quickly grown into one of the fiercest leagues in men’s basketball?

Expectations were relatively tame for each team’s respective first season. Many believed the women could contend for a tournament bid right away, but there were still plenty of questions about how the roster would come together and Purcell’s ability to coach.

Projections were far less bullish for the men. There was a clear talent deficiency relative to most of the SEC and a glaring lack of obvious go-to guys to lean on. They looked poised to go through a difficult transition year, though Chris Jans expressed his expectation was the make the NCAA Tournament right away.

And now that year one is complete, we can say with certainty that the future is bright for Bulldog Basketball.

It didn’t take long for Sam Purcell to show he’s much more than a recruiter, as his squad started the season 12-2. Despite some struggles early in SEC play, a close loss to top-ranked South Carolina made it clear the program was moving in the right direction.

Eventually, we saw performances like that turned into breakthrough wins against the likes of Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas, crucial victories that locked MSU into the NCAA Tournament.

A disappointing performance in the SEC Tournament left some wondering if a positive first season would end in deflating fashion. But the women’s team bounced back, using a dominant 3rd quarter to defeat a strong Illinois team in the First Four and win their way into the 64-team bracket.

Once there, they made history by becoming the first team in the history of the Women’s NCAA Tournament to advance from the First Four to the Round of 32 with a dominant upset over Creighton.

Though their season ended with a hard-fought loss to Notre Dame, Mississippi State Women’s Basketball laid a foundation this season that inspires the confidence that this program can get back to the level it was at just a few years ago under Vic Schaefer.

Chris Jans got his program off to an even hotter start in the early weeks of the 2022-2023 season. While the lack of offensive firepower was made obvious from the get-go (and that is putting it lightly…), dominant defensive play, a hallmark of Jans’ teams, carried Mississippi State Men’s Basketball.

The Bulldogs began the season 11-0, highlighted by a victory over a Marquette team that would go on to win the Big East and earn a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Then, they hit a wall. Poor shooting caught up to State, as they lost 8 of 9 games and began SEC play 1-7. However, Chris Jans wasn’t going to let his team quit. An overtime win over tournament-bound TCU in the SEC-Big 12 challenge sparked a run of 5-straight wins, and MSU put themselves right back into contention for March Madness.

A crucial late-season win over a red-hot Texas A&M squad put the Bulldogs in position to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2019, and a nail-biting victory over Florida in the SEC Tournament solidified that spot.

State’s performance in Dayton was a perfect encapsulation of their entire season. Their defense held a high-scoring Pitt team to its second-lowest point total of the year. But the offense simply could not do enough, as at the buzzer, a potential game-winning 3-point and put-back attempt didn’t fall, and MSU lost 60-59.

It was a truly devastating way to see what was such a fun season end. But regardless, Chris Jans’ first season greatly exceeded our expectations for what this team could be (even though they merely met his own expectations of being a tournament team).

Bulldog fans were amongst the SEC’s most passionate for men’s basketball in the 90s and 00s, and now we have a coach who has recaptured that excitement and looks poised to get Mississippi State Basketball back to being a regular tournament contender.

You could not have asked for better debut seasons for Sam Purcell and Chris Jans, with each leading their respective squads to 20+ wins and a tournament appearance. And it was only year one.

Purcell showed off his recruiting acumen by signing the nation’s #16 class and will continue to grow as a coach.

Jans could potentially see most of this season’s major contributors return next year and is finally adding some shooters to the roster through his own first signing class, including the top player in the state of Mississippi.

These teams are going to get better, and that’s exciting for State fans. The Bulldog faithful have shown a commitment to both men’s and women’s basketball at various points over the years.

Humphrey Coliseum is notorious for being one of the most difficult places to play in the sport when it’s packed. And there will be plenty of reason to pack it out in the future. A long offseason awaits, but we should be looking forward to heading to the Hump for Mississippi State basketball.