Mississippi State (10-14, 3-9 SEC) wraps up a three-game homestand with the best of the trio, hosting Vanderbilt (15-10, 7-5). Game time is 8:00 Tuesday.
The Commodores come to Humphrey Coliseum in a three-way tie for fourth overall SEC. They’ve won three of the past four games, including whippings of Missouri and Auburn to build February momentum. They also have a signature success two weeks ago against Texas A&M.
So a three-SEC loss streak of January is safely in the past now with Vanderbilt back on a post-season track. “They’re a NCAA team,” MSU Coach Ben Howland said. “We’ve got our hands full.”
These Commodores would be a handful for much better ball clubs. Certainly by the SEC standards this is one of the best-balanced lineups in terms of bodies and skills. The bodies that draw Howland’s attention first are on the front line, though in this league 7-0 Damian Jones (13.6ppg, 58%fgs) and 7-1 Luke Kornet (9.6ppg) are uncomfortably familiar figures. It’s unusual enough for a college club to have one pro paint prospect on the roster multiple years.
Vanderbilt has a pair of ‘em. “Jones is a true five-man,” Howland said. “Really physical, very good skill level, dunks everything around the rim and has a nice touch. Kornet is a great story, I think he will be in the NBA after his last year of college.” Kornet of course is the matchup nightmare at his height, equally efficient dunking as stepping out for long jumpers. And he’s blocking three balls per game on defense.
Meanwhile, “Their guard play is great,” Howland said. “They have great shooters and run a lot of really good stuff, and keep it spread and spaced.”
That’s easier to do with three arc-threats on the floor. Mathew Fischer-Davis (9.0ppg) gets the most looks and has hid 56 treys in 124 tries. That leaves Riley LaChance (8.2ppg, 28 treys) working the other side of the floor. And in-between? Wade Baldwin IV gets a lot of one-on-one opportunities to either make 46% of his arc-attempts or dish out nearly five assists per game. And he still leads the entire team in scoring, at 14.5ppg, meaning he must receive at least some support for SEC Player of the Year.
While Vanderbilt builds their NCAA resume here in the SEC second-half, Mississippi State still seeks the right sort of consistency. For that matter, just getting consecutive victories is a genuine goal now. The Bulldogs had their chance after routing Arkansas, playing their best all-around game and gaining what looked like real confidence.
“And then Georgia really manhandled us,” Howland said. The result was more than lost momentum. With six regular season games left and four losses behind the curve the Bulldogs have to go on some sort of tear to have any shot at a winning season.
A toll is being taken obviously. “It’s very different taking loss after loss,” guard Malik Newman said. “It’s hard because I know I’m going out and giving all that I have, I know the team is going out and giving all they have. For us to keep coming up short, it’s tough.”
Tougher, too, after seeing how well State can play in the handful of wins and quite a few tight losses. The Georgia loss was not an example of such. The Bulldogs had their lowest shooting and scoring figures of the entire season, unable to execute against a zone defense. And Georgia is not an especially serious zone team.
Vanderbilt, can be. Howland is certainly planning for the possibilities. “We’ve got to do a better job attacking the zone when they do go zone. That’s a key for us, as well as being able to guard them inside with their obvious height advantage.”
“We try to execute the game plan,” Newman said. “We just have to go out and compete and do what the game plan is.”
State’s best plan is always getting the ball in to center Gavin Ware. Georgia made it tougher than usual but Howland said just five field goal attempts from the team’s leading scorer (16.0ppg) wasn’t acceptable. Never mind Ware will be looking at at least one seven-footer when he gets the ball, the Bulldogs have to run their offense through him first.
Newman (12.6ppg) and classmate Quindarry Weatherspoon (11.2ppg) will try to win Ware some room with their outside shooting. Though, Weatherspoon has proven more productive in his surprising move to forward. Meanwhile swingman Craig Sword (12.4ppg) has scored double-digits in eight consecutive games and all but one SEC contest.
Barring another practice injury the lineup should be healthy, too. At full-strength point guard IJ Ready (9.9ppg) can make this offense operate, and when the Bulldogs do have one of their ‘on’ evenings the chance for success is present.
That’s what the Bulldogs count on. Newman even goes so far as to say “There’s still hope. There’s still light at the end of the tunnel.” Hope of what isn’t obvious but then players look for their own motivations.
“Once the SEC Tournament starts, that’s when things will start to get serious for us,” Newman said. “Right now we’re still trying to get a higher seed.”
As of today the Bulldogs and Auburn are tied for 12th seed, thus would match-up with each other. With Missouri removing itself from the conference tourney, an 11th seed is something worth playing for this year as it is a first-day bye.