Mississippi State student newspaper breaks down the Bulldogs ahead of First Four match-up


AP Photo/John Amis

Mississippi State forward Tolu Smith (1) loses the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

By Brian Sherry, Assistant Sports Editor

After seven long years, the Pitt men’s basketball team is back in the NCAA tournament. The Panthers hope to make a deep run in March, but they must get through their First Four matchup in Dayton, Ohio before any Cinderella run. 

Standing in their way is Mississippi State — a tough, defensive-minded team out of the SEC. To become more familiar with the Panthers’ opponent, The Pitt News talked with Tanner Marlar, the managing editor of Mississippi State’s student newspaper, The Reflector. 

Bulldogs will bring a dominant defense to Dayton

Mississippi State excels at stymying high-powered offenses like Pitt. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 8 in the nation in defense, holding their opponents to an average of just 60.4 points per game. Marlar said that the key to the Bulldogs defensive success is their tall and physical roster. 

“You have to start with their size,” Marlar said. “Mississippi State has a team where, if you look at the roster, what really jumps out is just how physically big they are.”

The Bulldog’s height may prove challenging for the Panthers. The team’s leader in scoring, rebounding and blocks — redshirt senior forward Tolu Smith — stands at a towering 6 feet 11 inches, making him a brick wall for opponents in the paint. 

And Mississippi State’s defense also helps with consistency. This consistent defensive effort counteracts the Bulldogs biggest weakness — shooting. Marlar said, when the shots don’t fall, the Bulldogs can always rely on their stand-out defense to keep them in games. 

“Defense is the one thing that travels,” Marlar said. “Sometimes shooting just does not [travel] and when you can’t shoot at home, you really don’t have to worry about being able to shoot or not on the road, which is kind of the silver lining.”

Don’t expect many three-pointers from Mississippi State

If there is one thing Mississippi State struggles with, it’s three point shooting. The Bulldogs rank dead last in the nation in three-point percentage, connecting on just 27.30% three-point attempts. Marlar admitted long-range shooting is a weakness, but said the Bulldogs still have players who can score from beyond the arc. 

“[Three-point shooting] is the Achilles heel of this Mississippi State team,” Marlar said. “[Junior guard] Shakeel Moore is going to shoot a lot. [Senior guard] Dashawn Davis is hovering around 40% from three on the season and has been for the majority of the season, but doesn’t shoot many of them. [Graduate student guard] Eric Reid is a guy that’s willing to take some threes and so is [senior forward] DJ Jeffries, so they’ve got guys that will shoot it and every once in a while they’ll hit one.”

To make up for the lack of three-point scoring, the Bulldogs fall back on their elite defense. Marlar said Mississippi State excels when they can force turnovers and score in fast-break situations.

“They turn their defense into offense,” Marlar said about the Bulldogs strategy for counteracting their lackluster shooting. “In games that they’ve been successful, they’ve turned their opponents over a lot.”

And because of Mississippi State and Pitt’s differing styles of play, Marlar expects a lot of turnovers in Tuesday night’s game.

“I expect this to be a game where both teams have double digits in turnovers,” Marlar said. “Just because Pitt wants to get out and play fast. [Mississippi State] wants to be in the passing lanes and use that to limit the other team’s possessions and get out in the fast break themselves.”

Battle of two historically tough conferences

Unlike many in the national media, Marlar believes that the ACC is still the nation’s premier basketball conference. 

“[The ACC is] a conference that historically has some of the best basketball in the country and it always will just because of the type of programs that are in that conference. Marlar said. “Is it a down year for the ACC across the board? Maybe you can make that argument. But I think a lot of that is predicated on the [ACC’s] bluebloods not having the success that they typically have.”

But the SEC is not far behind the ACC’s historic dominance. Marlar said the Bulldogs benefited greatly from playing a tough conference schedule. 

“As far as the SEC goes, it’s a different style of play than what the ACC is used to,” Marlar said. “Mississippi State really has run the gauntlet of the SEC and has faced some of the tougher teams in it. They went to Arkansas and picked up a win against the very talented team there. They have a home win against Texas A&M.” 

Pitt will likely have a near-home court advantage in Dayton

Pitt has a major off the court advantage over Mississippi State — distance to Dayton. Pittsburgh lies about 255 miles from Dayton. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs student-body will need to travel more than 600 miles to reach the game.

Marlar said that a few Bulldog fans will make the trek to Dayton, but it is hard for fans to travel, especially during baseball season. 

“Baseball here is king,” Marlar said. “So during baseball season, it’s just hard to draw crowds away from Starkville, [Mississippi], especially with that being a good little drive like that. Now, Mississippi State fans typically do travel, I would say that there’s going to be a contingency of Mississippi State fans there.

Still, the Mississippi student-body is behind their Bulldogs. Marlar — a lifelong Bulldog fan — said this year is the most he’s ever seen the fan base support the basketball program. 

“The student body is 100% behind the team, that much I can tell you as far as the fan base goes,” Marlar said. “I grew up in Mississippi, my dad is an alumni and I’ve come since I was little. But this was the first time I’ve seen the fan base really buy into a team like this.”


Marlar has confidence in the Bulldogs. He believes Mississippi State will edge out the Panthers in a nail-biter.

“It’s going to be close because Mississippi State does not blow anyone out of the water,” Marlar said. “I’m going to have to go Mississippi State [wins] 71-68.”