It took years, but Garrison Brooks has finally arrived at Mississippi State, where he originally intended to play college basketball before deciding to go to North Carolina. After four productive seasons with the Tar Heels and the retirement of legendary UNC coach Roy Williams, Brooks is taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility thanks to the NCAA's COVID rule - and he'll play it at State, where his dad is a longtime assistant coach.
It's not every year that Mississippi State adds a proven transfer from a blueblood program like North Carolina. Brooks started 108 games, scored almost 1,300 points and grabbed just under 800 rebounds over his four years with the Tar Heels. He led the ACC in scoring in conference games as a junior and was named the most improved player in the league. As a senior, he was selected preseason ACC player of the year.
"I think we've got a chance to do something really special," Brooks said during a Zoom press conference. "That's the goal. That was always the goal when we first came in. With our experience, we have a chance to do something really special for this program."
The Bulldogs already have done special things under Ben Howland, averaging 21.5 victories over the last four years, reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2019 and the NIT championship game last season. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, State would be on a four-year postseason streak.
The return of Iverson Molinar and the addition of four high-major transfers led by Brooks should help extend the streak.
Molinar is coming off a sophomore season in which he improved his scoring average by almost 11 points a game to finish fourth in the SEC in that department at 16.7 points a game. The 6-3, 190-pound guard also earned All-NIT honors. The conference coaches expect even bigger things from Molinar this season, voting him to their preseason All-SEC first team.
Reinforcements have arrived to help, primarily in a four-person transfer class that's familiar with big-time basketball. It starts with Brooks, who was voted to the preseason All-SEC second team by the league coaches, but the talent infusion doesn't stop there.
It includes 6-2 junior guard Rocket Watts, who was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team two years ago at Michigan State; 6-7 junior forward D.J. Jeffries, a key contributor on the Memphis team that beat Mississippi State in last season's NIT final; and 6-1 sophomore guard Shakeel Moore, who was named ACC Freshman of the Week during his one season at North Carolina State.
Mississippi State fans will have to wait, though, to see the entire roster in action together. Watts is recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip. Tolu Smith, the 6-11, 245-pound redshirt junior who was an inside force for the Bulldogs last season, is on the mend after surgery for a Jones fracture in his foot.
"We're going to be super conservative," Howland said. "There's just no timetable to be able to give you to say they'll be back by such-and-such a date. It's based on how they're feeling and how they're responding. We're going to err on the side of caution because once they come back, we want them to be back full-time for good."
When Watts and Smith return and blend with the rest of the roster, the Bulldogs have a chance to make good on Brooks' prediction "to do something really special.
"It all adds up," he said, "once we have everybody back and healthy."