Mississippi State men’s basketball: Chris Jans’ strategy for replacing All-SEC forward Tolu Smith,We need to figure out who these players are and what they bring to the table.”

In Chris Jans’ first two seasons coaching Mississippi State men’s basketball in Starkville, All-Southeastern Conference forward Tolu Smith was a key player in the starting lineup. However, for the 2024-25 season, Smith and backup center Jimmy Bell Jr. will no longer be available, having exhausted their college eligibility.

“Tolu Smith has been a cornerstone for us since I arrived,” Jans said earlier this week in his first interview with reporters since the season ended against Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s first round. “He scored a lot of points, grabbed numerous rebounds, and logged significant minutes. He played a crucial role in our success. More importantly, he was an even better person than a player, which is the highest compliment I can give. So, we have some big shoes to fill.”

With Smith no longer available, the center position is the biggest uncertainty for Mississippi State as the team began summer workouts this week. To address this, Jans recruited Miami (FL) and Rhode Island transfers, sophomore Michael Nwoko and redshirt freshman Jeremy Foumena, to join sophomore Gai Chol, who had limited playing time during his freshman year.

While Jans expects the inexperienced trio to step up next season, he acknowledges that their limitations make it nearly impossible to fully replace what Smith contributed to the Bulldogs during his career.

“We need some players to step up and produce during the minutes that Smith played,” Jans said. “But it doesn’t have to be done the same way Tolu or Jimmy (Bell Jr.) did it. It will be different. We need to figure out who these players are and what they bring to the table.”

Chol, hailing from South Sudan, stepped into a backup center role last season when Smith missed all of the non-conference games due to a foot injury suffered weeks before Mississippi State’s opener against Arizona State in Chicago. In 16 games, he averaged just over two points and 1.4 rebounds per game in 6.4 minutes per contest, shooting 60% from the field. His only double-digit performance was against UT-Martin, where he scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds.

Nwoko likely has the highest potential among the three young centers, having been a former four-star recruit (ranked No. 111 overall by 247Sports Composite in 2023). Last year, he played in 29 games for the Hurricanes, averaging 2.7 points and two rebounds per game, with a shooting percentage of 56% from the floor.

Foumena is the biggest unknown but fits well with the modern style of college basketball due to his ability to stretch the floor and shoot from the perimeter. Originally born in France and later moving to Montreal, Foumena shot 52.5% from the field and 32% from behind the arc for Rhode Island, averaging 5.3 points and 3.5 rebounds over 28 games.

“I am excited about the challenge,” Jans said. “I loved coaching Tolu and Jimmy, but they were older players. These new guys are young, still growing, developing, and figuring things out. Our goal is to accelerate that process and improve them day by day, game by game, and even from now until March. It will be a challenge for the entire staff, and I am excited about it.”

Chol, Foumena, and Nwoko aren’t expected to carry the offensive load like Smith did for much of his time at Mississippi State, given the team’s strong guard lineup. However, their development and contributions will be crucial for Jans’ team to reach its full potential this season.

“They need to come in eager to learn,” Jans emphasized. “Fortunately, they’re the type of players who are like sponges, soaking up knowledge, and they have the work ethic necessary to improve and grow. There’s definitely a lot of work ahead, but I’m confident they’ll rise to the challenge.”

Lideatrick ‘Tulu’ Griffin was a standout for Mississippi State during the challenging 2023 season, providing an average of 86.6 all-purpose yards per game. Amidst the frustrations, Griffin’s contributions stood out, particularly in catching passes and returning kickoffs, which occasionally injected excitement into games.

In an offensively challenged campaign, Griffin shone brightly. He recorded 50 receptions, accounting for approximately one-quarter of the team’s total receptions. These receptions yielded 658 yards and four touchdowns, showcasing his impact on the team’s offensive output.

The standout performance of the season occurred at South Carolina, where Griffin had a remarkable night, setting a school record with 256 receiving yards on just seven receptions. This surpassed the previous record of 220 yards set by Jameon Lewis in the 2013 Liberty Bowl against Rice.

Griffin also made respectable contributions as a kickoff returner, receiving a fair number of opportunities. Initially, opponents kicked to the Bulldogs after scoring points, and Griffin, along with Zavion Thomas, was back there. However, opponents preferred to kick away from Thomas due to his impressive 33.7-yard average return. Consequently, Griffin ended up with 14 kickoff returns compared to Thomas’ six, averaging 21.9 yards per return.

Some might question how this adds up to his average of 86.6 yards per game. However, Griffin’s occasional contributions as a runner need to be considered as well. He carried the ball on sweeps and reverses a total of 17 times, accumulating 74 yards and a touchdown. Despite defenses being well-prepared for these plays early in the season, Griffin maintained a strong average of 4.4 yards per carry.

Griffin ended his four-fall career with Mississippi State catching 126 balls in 44 games worth 1,490 yards and nine touchdowns. It took him a while to get the route-running part of being a college receiver down pat though he did come away with Armed Forces Bowl MVP after catching his first touchdown toss, from Will Rogers, and returning five kickoffs for big yards.

After the 2022 junior season Griffin was first-team All-SEC as a return specialist and consensus All-American. He was also a three-time member of the SEC’s academic honor roll. Though undrafted this past April he was signed as a free agent by Las Vegas’ Raiders. There his versatility and still-developing skills can make him a place in the National Football League.

And, remind Mississippi State fans what might have been in a more developed offense able to get the ball farther downfield to a Dog with big play potential never entirely tapped.

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