STARKVILLE — Mississippi State men’s basketball head coach Chris Jans has been in the postseason plenty of times in his coaching career.
Before heading to Starkville, Jans led New Mexico State to the NCAA tournament three times in his five-year stint there, winning the Western Athletic Conference tournament three times and the regular season title four times.
Jans has had a taste for the Big Dance, but in his first season with the Bulldogs, he’s entered a situation he’s yet to encounter: The Bubble.
Entering his first Southeastern Conference tournament this week, he and Mississippi State find themselves as part of ESPN insider Joe Lunardi’s “Last Four In” for bracketology. With Florida coming up at noon Thursday in the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville, he’s finding his way through just like his players.
“We know if we win what awaits us, but I don’t have a huge routine about it,” Jans said. “We’ll prepare like we always do, maybe a little more hands-on-deck.”
As has been the case with Mississippi State (20-11, 8-10 SEC) over the last two weeks or so, every game has been a must-win game to keep the Bulldogs’ NCAA tournament hopes alive.
In that stretch, they’ve suffered some close, gut-wrenching losses, including in their regular season finale against Vanderbilt, a 77-72 final that saw them with the chance to tie with under 10 seconds left in regulation.
The SEC is a deep conference this season, with the potential of having seven teams make March Madness come this Sunday.
While Florida won’t be one of those teams bidding for a spot, it will be playing the role of spoiler and will be tough to defend against, especially with the Gators retooling their offense after the loss of center Colin Castleton.
“It seemed like they changed their entire offense,” forward Tolu Smith said. “There’s not a lot of rim protection, but they have a lot of good guard play. They have some veteran guards and they like to do a lot of spacing out and play. So we just have to take advantage of what we usually do on offense.”
Controlling the boards and getting second-chance opportunities offensively is vital for the Bulldogs, who on average this season have out-rebounded the Gators by 2.3 rebounds a game.
Losing Castleton means Florida will have to make up nearly eight rebounds amongst a guard-heavy lineup, something that will favor players like Smith, who was named First Team All-SEC from coaches and the media this week, near the basket.
In talking with Jans, all attention is focused on Florida. Talk about bracketology and the NCAA tournament has floated around the locker room over the past few weeks, but Jans has tried to mitigate it the best he can.
“Once we decided to talk about it in our room, it’s been a consistent message from me of don’t waste your time,” Jans said. “Those people aren’t in the room. It’s fun, moreso for the fans, and it’s obviously an unbelievable time of year for college basketball. I try to encourage them to not get caught up in that, but at the same time, we’ve been pretty blunt with where we’re at over the last seven to 10 days.”
Tip-off from Bridgestone Arena is at noon and the game will be broadcast on SEC Network.
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