After a successful season-opening win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Mississippi State faces a tougher challenge Friday and will face another team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
The Bulldogs (1-0) travel to Philadelphia, Pa., to face Akron (1-0) in a 6 pm tipoff Friday as part of the Barstool Invitational.
Earlier this week, Mississippi State head coach Chris Jans met with the media to discuss the Akron matchup along with other topics:
Q: You have said before you want your team to face adversity early in the schedule. You face a solid team in Akron on Friday before playing Arkansas-ine Bluff 48 hours later. Your thoughts on that challenge?
January: Yeah, we talked about it a lot in the offseason that we have a very challenging schedule. It looks to be even more challenging than we even thought in July and August with the results of the early season. But we have a little bit of adversity, obviously, on Monday. Down at the half in the home opener and played much better in the second half. But that’s just the taste of it.
We’re going to have way bigger challenges, tougher leads to overcome, etc. We haven’t faced any major foul issues yet or anything of that nature. We’re not going to play in someone else’s barn but we’re going to play away from the friendly confines for the first time.
Got a lot of respect for Akron, very well coached. Obviously, another NCAA Tournament team last year with a good core group of players back from that team. They are a program, at least right now, that doesn’t play a ton of guys. They rely on two guys to do the bulk of their scoring and they only play seven, eight guys on normal nights, at least that’s what we’ve seen thus far.
We will have our hands full. They’ve got the two kids with the one kid out front, (Xavier) Castaneda and then the big kid around the basket, (Enrique) Freeman. They are both accomplished players. Casteneda can shoot it, can bounce it, can score in a variety of ways. Then Freeman is just a load. He is so skilled around the basket with the right and the left, and he was the defensive player of the year last year.
So it will be a heck of a matchup for Tolu (Smith) and the rest of our bigs around the basket Friday night.
Q: What have you learned from your past of playing away from home and in environments like you play in Friday?
January: Yeah, I love going on the road. I love being with our guys where it’s just us. You get to know each other better. We’re in a hotel, having meetings and obviously, it’s just us. The normal people they would talk to when practice is over are not around. I just think relationships are formed at a deeper level when we are together like that.
We’re eating together more as a team, hanging out more as a squad, traveling together with one another. I just love seeing where we’re at. I’ve been around other programs and part of other programs. We’ve normally had a lot of success on the road and I think that is probably the true test to how good your team is, how you perform away from home.
Most teams, most good teams win the majority of their games at home. But great teams are ones that can go on the road and find ways to overcome what the road brings. So it’s a heck of an early test for us and I will be anxious, as you all are, to see how we perform.
Q: Akron’s Enrique Freeman is listed at 6-foot-7 in some places. Do you see any kind of size advantage there?
January: We’ll see. I don’t put a lot of stock in those measurements. Sometimes people inflate them and sometimes people deflate them. To be honest, it is about how they play. Like the Freeman kid, if you would have told me after watching film initially and not knowing what his measurements were, I would not have believed you because he plays bigger than that. He plays stronger than that.
He’s got an energy about him, a toughness about him. He’s been very well schooled on both ends of the floor. But I will know more when we are on the floor and at their level and see if we do indeed have a physical advantage. But at the end of the day, most of the teams I’ve had other than my last team, weren’t that big and physical.
KenPom has all those metrics and we were always at the bottom in simple height across the country. We used that as a chip on our shoulder type of deal. I am not sure where we are at this year. I haven’t looked at it that closely and where we rank among the other teams because at the end of the day, most coaches will tell you it really doesn’t matter.
Q: Last week the NIL-based Bulldog Initiative built a lot of momentum with new donations. How important is that in building a program?
January: I think it’s been well-documented that the transfer portal along with the NIL has changed the landscape of, at least, college basketball and a lot of other sports, as well, and it’s no different for us. Certainly appreciate all of those folks that are willing and able to help move our program further along. It’s a part of winning right now. It’s part of what every program across the country is trying to secure to make the choices for these student athletes that they have to make just to have a better situation for our potential Bulldogs.
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it right now. But I know there are a lot of people working behind the scenes to try to make it happen.
Q: Tolu Smith has the ability to get a double-double each night he plays. How satisfying was it to see what he did in the opener?
January: Yeah, he left some meat on the bone and he’s got to make his free throws. That wasn’t up to par. Knowing him like I do, even in the short period I’ve been around him, he will be working on that and that is something that bothers him. It’s a luxury to have someone you can throw the ball to around the basket that can back his man down and have an array of moves to potentially put the ball in the basket or get crowded. Or attract a double team and get the other team in rotation.
We’ve really been working since we’ve arrived on him passing the ball out of the post in anticipation of people throwing different types of coverages at him so that he will be prepared for whatever the defense throws at him. He will have to adjust to each and every game to how they defend him.
Q: In the opener and after watching film, was there anything that surprised you from a positive standpoint?
January: Not really. We have a pretty high standard for our expectations, certainly for our individuals. I don’t think anyone exceeded what I thought our expectations would be. As a team, I thought our defensive rebounding wasn’t what we needed it to be. I thought we did a decent job on the offensive end in terms of crashing and keeping the ball alive and giving ourselves second and third chance opportunities.
But on the other end, we were not assignment correct with checking out, getting involved and having a gang-rebounding mentality that is required if you want to have a good defensive rebounding team. That is something that will be addressed today (Wednesday) and we’re going to work on it the next couple of days. We’re not going to have that size advantage each and every night that we had against Corpus Christi.
Our kids have to understand that. Like I said, we have to be assignment correct and do a better job on the backboards.