Tennessee Arrives on Four-Win Streak Saturday

Mississippi State hosts one of the SEC’s hot-streak squads Saturday. And as Ben Howland notes, “We helped get that started.”

Yes, the Bulldogs did play their unplanned part in starting Tennessee’s four-game roll. Two weekends later now the Volunteers are in town for a return-game, facing a Mississippi State team which needs to change their own streak.

Saturday’s 2:30 tipoff opens the second-half of SEC season for both squads. Howland’s Bulldogs are 13-8, 4-5 and struggling with four losses in their last five games. They are also coming off the worst setback of the season after falling 88-61 Tuesday at Ole Miss.

Tennessee (13-9, 5-4) has a similar record but 180-degree different trajectory. Since beating State to start their string the Volunteers have added impressive wins over Kentucky and Kansas State. Also, “They just crushed Auburn in their last game,” Howland said. “And they have I think three road wins in the SEC. So they’re playing well.”

They certainly played well in a 91-74 home win over State back on January 21. The Bulldogs were not terrible, even out-shooting the home team by a bit with four double-figures scorers. But it was missed shots that settled the game.

Because the Vols came away with a huge rebounding margin making for too many second-chance points. It wasn’t just on the glass where Tennessee made the bigger Bulldogs look bad, too.

“They took it at us inside, too many easy paint touches,” Howland said. “So we have to do a lot better defending the post to have a chance. And they did a good job defensively.”

A good enough job. State center Schnider Herard (5.2ppg, 5.2rpg) had a team-best 14 points and 11 rebounds for his first college double-double. He just got no help as backup post E.J. Datcher went scoreless and starting forward Aric Holman struggled mightily on both ends.

This would seem surprising comparing sizes. But as Howland said height isn’t everything. In fact, “They are the most physical team we’ve played, and they’re the shortest.”

Tennessee also has enough depth to play fast the full forty. It may not result directly in turnovers but Howland thinks State got sped-up in round-one. It led to missed layups and even dunks trying to push the pace.

At least the Bulldogs now have experience in the matchup to scout from, and adjust accordingly. Howland does expect the Vols to change a little too, such as throw more double-teams at Herard. This would mean more motivation for State’s backcourt to set a tone in the rematch.

That might be a little difficult under current conditions, though. The good news is senior point guard IJ Ready (8.7ppg, 94 assists) did return to practice Thursday, having hurt an ankle last Saturday and missing the Oxford game. His absence has shown in crucial stretches where Howland needs an older, calmer hand to settle the rest of the squad.

“He’s our stabilizer. In assist-to-turnover ratio he’s the best in the conference.”

The guard who took Ready’s starting job is more iffy now. Lamar Peters (12.3ppg, 45 treys) has been brilliant at times in his first SEC season, averaging 15.6 points in league play on 45% shooting. He also has had a few more turnovers and wild shots missed but that’s just a reflection of this rookie’s all-out aggressive play.

This style though led to a fluke hip pointer at Ole Miss when Peters caught a knee in-passing. He tried to play on it and couldn’t. Nor did the freshman practice Thursday. Added to this, starting forward Mario Kegler (9.5, 5.5) missed a day with a sore knee. Howland wouldn’t even call them ‘game day decisions’ on Friday.

He did report a good Thursday practice under these shortened circumstances. Though, he added, a poor Tuesday game had Howland back on some fundamentals which had been stressed for weeks already. These remain problematic, most obviously something as basic as transition defense. Here the absence of Ready, then the loss of Peters were certainly factors.

But not so much as to excuse being beaten end-to-end for easy Rebel baskets. In fact, “I don’t like to do a lot of transition stuff the day before a game,” Howland said Friday. “But we have to.” At the added risk of practice injuries, too, the backcourt must be more physical on the move. And of course there is the board-work.

“I would guess we’re last in the league in rebound margin,” Howland said. It’s actually next-to-last but the point holds true. Finally is something that isn’t always under Bulldog control: the last five opponents have combined to score 107 points from the foul line with 145 chances. For State the totals are 65-of-110.

Howland can’t coach what will and won’t be called a foul on his team. He can and will stress effort. Besides, the coach said, nine games into conference schedule and 21 overall means youth can’t be as much an excuse from now on. No, the Bulldogs won’t mature for another year.

But they also won’t be cut any slack in the next nine league games.

“That just is what it is. We have enough game time under our belts now we should be figuring this thing out.”

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