If ever one basketball game encapsulated an entire season, it was Mississippi State’s excruciatingly painful 60-59 defeat to Pittsburgh at Dayton in Tuesday’s First Four of the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s what I mean:
State fought doggedly throughout, especially on defense and on the boards. The Bulldogs held Pitt nearly 16 points under its scoring average. They out-muscled and out-rebounded the Panthers 49-28 on the boards. But they lost because they could not make a shot when it mattered most.
With just over a second to play, lefty Shakeel Moore launched a wide-open 3-point shot from just beyond the arc. No Panther was in the same zip code. Moore’s shot bounded off the rim. State’s D.J. Jeffries rose high above the goal and still had a chance for the tip-in before the buzzer. His his slap missed its mark, too.
“There was no doubt in our minds we’d fight and claw and we did,” MSU coach Chris Jans said. “We had a couple chances there at the end to win the game, but it didn’t happen.”
Of State’s final possession, Jans said, “It was a heck of a look … It’s all you can ask for, a chance — the ball is in the air, to win an NCAA Tournament game and still have enough time to get a put-back.”
The Bulldogs did everything you are supposed to do except make the shot. Or the put-back.
And that will be the way Jans’ first Bulldogs team is remembered. They were a team that performed so many facets of the game just the way you draw it up. They played hard and with passion. They defended doggedly. Indeed, they finished 10th in all the NCAA in scoring defense, second in the SEC. They rebounded well, finishing 16th in the land in offensive rebounds, third in the SEC.
They shared the basketball, worked for good shots. They just did not make enough of those, especially from the perimeter. Against Pitt, State took 23 three-point shots and made only six. Pitt made nine of 19. There’s your difference and then some. State, despite taking four more treys, scored nine fewer points from beyond the arc.
And this was nothing new. There are 363 Division I-playing basketball teams in the NCAA. The Bulldogs finished 363rd in three-point shooting percentage at 26.6 percent. And yet, they won 23 games and made the NCAA Tournament. They played the team tied with the second best record in the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference to the wire.
“I’ll always remember this group for their belief, for their buy-in and for their coachability,” Jans said afterward. “I’ve told them that many times throughout the year. I reiterated it in the locker room just now because it’ll be my first group at Mississippi State. We’re proud of our accomplishments this year. Certainly, we want more. We want to be playing on Friday, but it’s not meant to be.”
Pitt, like State, an 11-seed, goes on to face 6-seed Iowa State Friday afternoon at Greensboro, N.C. State returns to Starkville, where Jans must revamp his roster and get ready for the 2023-24 season. The Bulldogs lose three of their top four scorers and two of their top three rebounders. The biggest loss is obvious: Tolu Smith, deservedly the Bailey Howell Trophy winner, led the Bulldogs in scoring, rebounding, field goal shooting and blocked shots. He will be extremely difficult to replace.
The good news for State – and for Jans – is that in college basketball today you can change a roster extremely fast. Expect the Bulldogs to be active in the portal. “That’s already begun,” Jans said. “That never ends. Recruiting never ends whether you are playing or not.”
It will be difficult, indeed, for State to find another force in the paint like Tolu Smith. But you can bet your cowbell on this: Jans also will be looking for some shooters, guys who can put the ball in the basket – especially from the perimeter.