Mississippi State (14-13, 5-10 SEC) begins a pair of trips East with Saturday’s 3:00 game at Vanderbilt (15-13, 8-7). The Bulldogs will be at South Carolina next Tuesday, before concluding the schedule March 4 hosting Louisiana State.
There weren’t a lot of highlights for Ben Howland’s first team. But the home game with Vanderbilt certainly was one, probably the highest one. Those Bulldogs rallied to knock off a star-studded Commodore club 75-74 as guard Quinndary Weatherspoon threw in a corner three-pointer at the horn.
That only meeting of 2016 did mean Mississippi State has won three of the last four meetings, and have split the last ten.
While the Bulldogs are trying to stay over break-even for this second Howland season, the Commodores are playing to stay in the top-half of the league standings and a better SEC Tournament bracket. A new coach is in charge as well and Howland recalls Bryce Drew’s playing days.
Style-wise, though, MSU’s coach doesn’t see much difference in how Vanderbilt plays the game. What is changed is after losing a pair of first-round draft picks from a NCAA Tournament lineup.
“But the bulk of that team is back. They have players that have won before at a high level and they’re playing really well right now. The best they’ve played the entire season.”
Vanderbilt brings a three-win streak into the weekend, having taken down Tennessee by 11 this week. This isn’t a classic fire-away offense coming to town. Vanderbilt’s 71.6 points-per is among the league’s low and even a couple points behind the Bulldogs. Even their overall shooting is merely middling.
What they do, of course, is make up for efficiency with proficiency at the arc. The Commodores average 9.9 made-treys per game and shoot there better than anyone. More often too, by a margin of 42 attempts ahead of next-nearest gunning group Auburn.
Individually, “(Luke) Kornet is a real issue in terms of matchups,” Howland said. “Because he’s a 7-1 guy who steps out and shoots threes, yet he still rim-protects. (Riley) LaChance and (Matthew) Fisher-Davis are really good, they can really put the ball in the basket. (Jeff) Roberson is a good player, a hard matchup because he can guard fours but plays like a three.”
Mississippi State has mixed emotions about three-point shooting. In SEC-only stats the Bulldogs are actually a good group guarding the arc, allowing just 88 made longballs in the 15 games. The converse is, this Dog team tends to live and die with trey tries in SEC season. The record shows how often this has worked out, especially since a 3-1 SEC start in January.
Weatherspoon’s sophomore shooting woes are well-known. Since a 25-point outburst at Auburn, he has been 21-of-52 overall and just 1-of-16 at the arc. Meaning, when the 6-4 guard does go inside he has been far more productive and stayed in double-digits.
It’s the long misses, most of them open, that get noticed naturally. Lamar Peters has also struggled during the same four-game stretch; 10-of-42 overall and 6-of-26. Point guard Lamar Peters also doesn’t have as many inside-attack options as Weatherspoon.
Howland agrees some of Peters’ issues are simply shot selection. And, “Part of it might have started with the hip pointer. But he gets open looks, too, and he’s really flat.” As in lack of arch from the arc, which video study proves. At the same time freshman Peters has taken a beating this year not just on the perimeter but during his frequent drives into traffic.
No Dog is more achy by now as Weatherspoon though, with wrist and knee issues that only the off-season can cure. Yet they can’t just stop shooting and only drive and dish, so State must try to find the range somehow.
Or let others take their shots, like forward Mario Kegler. For a five-game stretch the freshman was lighting it up at long range, 13-of-22. In the last two games though he is 1-of-7, though moving in closer has produced double-digit points still. Freshman guard Tyson Carter has been a scoring boost off the bench to offset defensive immaturity.
Paint-points have been coming harder of late. Not that center Schnider Herard and forward Aric Holman can’t score the ball; they just don’t try often enough. Holman’s problem isn’t really chances, as he gets the ball on each end with strong rebounding. It is with officials who have whistled him 18 times the last four games.
In this same stretch frosh Herard is 7-of-12 shooting. Yes, just three official attempts per-game. Some of this is he does get fouled a lot, which is a good choice as Herard is only 49% on one-pointers this season. Still getting the big Dog more touches and chances can help if only to make defenses sag and open up closer shots for others.
The encouraging word for State of late is guard IJ Ready’s return to health. And how, as he scored 20 points in the Tuesday loss with five assists and three steals. Howland credits the lone senior with boosting Bulldog defense and ball movement. “Just with his experience and understanding what we’re trying to do.”
What Mississippi State is trying to do is get to the SEC Tournament with a better-than-.500 record and a degree of momentum. They would be seeded 12th today and matched with Alabama. By a week from Sunday?